A series of interviews with people about the work they do.

Kelly McDonald is a jeweller. She was born in Moe (which means ‘swamp’ in the Aboriginal language), in the Latrobe Valley, Gippsland, Australia. Kelly has lived in Wellington, New Zealand since 2004. She teaches jewellery at Whitireia New Zealand.


“There’s a T-shirt somebody got printed that sums it up. It says: ‘I’m not that sort of jeweller.”

–Kelly McDonald

HS3.2 Kelly McDonald Portrait

Kelly McDonald in her shed



 

Interviewer

What are you doing?

Kelly McDonald

I’m cleaning up, because it’s part of my process.

Interviewer

Part of your process of what?

Kelly McDonald

Of making. If I’ve got a clean, clear space then my head is clear. You know, the internal mimics the external.

Interviewer

Do you think you’re a details person or a big picture person?

Kelly McDonald

I don’t know that I could answer that honestly. I’d have an idea about it but I don’t think it would be true, it would just be me saying what made me look better.


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Interviewer

But here you’ve two large white sheets of paper with things laid out on it; if I stumbled across one of these objects on the footpath, I wouldn’t even notice it, and here you are arranging lots of bits of rusty metal, stones, and these things, floats from fishing nets, and you’ve arranged them and there’s a pattern and order to this.

Kelly McDonald

It would be true to say that this is the detail of a big install. These are visual clues for me; by laying them out I start to see that I need to make more of these and I’ll build it up.

Interviewer

Do you mean the pieces will be bigger or there will be more of these things?

Kelly McDonald

More of these things. In my work shed, and quite often in galleries, I’m limited by space because I don’t do many solo shows. I tend to do big group shows or small 2-3 person shows. I’m still getting started and the idea of a solo show is intimidating, plus I can learn more from group shows. But, I’m getting closer to the idea of wanting and needing a solo show. These pieces work better when they have more space around them.


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Interviewer

So they have their own margins? Their own white space? Which is how I would think of it in publishing terms.

Kelly McDonald

Yeah. I’m starting to find jewellery a little bit limiting. I’m trying to work out why and I think it is the space thing. The body is really important for me in jewellery, which is why sculpture or small sculpture doesn’t really draw me in. It’s the relationship with the body and the scale that you have to work on that interests me.

Interviewer

Do you mean that people can wear these pieces on their body, or have you just made them a size that is in scale with a body?

Kelly McDonald

There’s lots of ways you can interact with the body that isn’t just wearing. That’s the financially viable form of making, but lucky for me I’m subsidised by my partner, and I work.

The relationship with the body can just be implied through weight. Like with those stones pieces—we have the knowledge about the weight of those without needing to explain.

The other thing is that I’m moving to not wanting to lock my work down, certainly not behind glass, so that when it’s displayed you can pick up the work and try it on.

Interviewer

So people should feel okay to take it off the wall and touch it and hold it?

Kelly McDonald

Yeah. And my work’s tough. I watch this British maker, David Clarke, who is a contemporary silversmith, and his work is always for touch rather than ‘Do Not Touch’. And every gallery has to be okay with that because that’s his way of exhibiting. When I first heard that I was like, ‘Oh yeah, whatever…’ But then I went to an exhibition of his last year and walked in to the gallery and the usual reverence you have for these objects and the ‘not touching’ wasn’t there, his irreverence and the freedom of being allowed to touch actually made his objects more intriguing.

Interviewer

Is reverence part of the preciousness of the materials?

Kelly McDonald

Yeah, but then his things are three to four thousand pound! They’re hollow form, so you drop them they’ll dent, but for him that’s part of it. That’s a piece starting its life already and it’s been made for touch.

Interviewer

So it’s made for the human body, for people. Do you see it as a communication form?

Kelly McDonald

I think so, and I think that’s what all artists do—we’re communicating something. But with painting, you just look at, you don’t touch it, and it has no relationship to the body through the hands at all, it’s only about eyes.

With jewellery more senses are involved because you wear it and it’s a constant interaction with the body; having to put it on, take it off. My work looks good on a wall because it’s flat and graphic, but I’m thinking more about where the body is in wall display.

I wonder if it’s a tension in my making, where I have to work through these conundrums? I don’t always have a solution and maybe I never will but it’s one of the things that drives me.

Interviewer

So it’s part of finding a form for a piece?

Kelly McDonald

That’s what I’m working out. I’ve been back making for three years. There’s parts of it that are exciting because they’re still new. Like knowing your process and playing with it.

Interviewer

With writing, there are things that really irritate me in certain texts. For instance, I can’t bear cleverness or people who need to show that they’ve read all the post-modern books. I will always choose story above that. I’ve gone back to reading children’s novels recently because they’re often pure story, and thinking about how they work has affected my own writing, it has put more restraints around how I write, because I’m not satisfied with something just because it makes me sound funny or smart, which I might have been ten years ago, but now, anything I say must be an integral part of storytelling.

Kelly McDonald

Yeah well, separate of anything we do, we have our own core values, and honesty is a really important one for me and it obviously is for you too. So in communicating directly and honestly you can do all those fancy things like set shiny stones in a ring, or for you, indicate how well read you are through language. I guess for me that thing of putting the work behind glass doesn’t feel honest, because it’s about the touch.

Interviewer

So your values give you a set of constraints to work within and one of those constraints is ‘I’m not going to use glass’.

Kelly McDonald

If I can choose to do that, then yeah.

Interviewer

You said you’ve just come back to making for 3 years. You took time off?

Kelly McDonald

Ten years, for children.

 Interviewer

And in those years, did you feel frustrated? Or did you always know you’d get back to it?

 Kelly McDonald

Ha! Well, I had that fancy dream that we all have with our first child, ‘I’m gonna have so much time, cause I won’t be in a full time job.’ It’s easy to imagine that, so I did.

Previous to having my first child I had been working in the film industry, which is a vortex you get sucked into and don’t always come out of. Then I had a second child, and I couldn’t do it with one, so I wasn’t able to do it with two, but for some reason when I had a third child suddenly you have that level of chaos and you just jam everything in, because you realise you’re running out of time and no one cares that much.

 Interviewer

How old was your youngest when you started seriously getting into making again?

 Kelly McDonald

He must have been one and a half.

 Interviewer

In the time that you weren’t making, you were teaching?

 Kelly McDonald

Yes, so I did stay connected. I was also part of ‘The See Here’, which is a very small gallery space in Tory Street in town. It’s not run by anyone, and you don’t enter the space, you just look through the window. With one show every year there, it kept me gently tethered to making.

I also joined up with a collective of like-minded women who were in similar positions with time constraints and we found we could do more as a group than we could do individually. We all have different skill sets—one can put an application in, one can start making the work, another can photograph it, the others can add their few bits and pieces, and before you know it, we’ve got a show. Collectively, we’ve been able to stay strongly tethered to jewellery, and also build the community in Wellington. It’s small here, but with a community you can keep growing things.

 Interviewer

It sounds like a really supportive community.

 Kelly McDonald

Yeah, it is.

 Interviewer

I can’t imagine writers ever banding together in quite that way, perhaps it’s not possible. But jewellery does seem quite a solo pursuit, like writing. I guess you could share a studio space, or would that be too distracting?

 Kelly McDonald

I’m too easily distracted, and distracting, so it’s better for everybody if I keep a separate space.

 Interviewer

How long have you been making jewellery?

Kelly McDonald

I graduated from Sydney College of the Arts when I was 23 and I’m 42 now. It was a bachelor of visual arts, jewellery was my major.

 Interviewer

So how did you know you wanted to make jewellery?

 Kelly McDonald

I was ten and I decided I was going to be a nurse and a jeweller. I grew up in a small country town in Australia, and I was going to do my nursing degree at home in country Victoria at the local uni, then move to a city and study at arts school and pay my way through casual nursing, or agency nursing. And that’s what I did.

When I arrived in Sydney to start my course and find a place to live, at one of the flats I went to look at, I got talking to the woman and she said she ran a nursing agency. So I joined up with her agency within the first few days of getting to Sydney and was working within a week. I didn’t take that house but I got a job out of it.

 Interviewer

That seems exceptionally driven and clear-minded.

 Kelly McDonald

Yeah, that path was direct, but then it’s been much less direct ever since. Maybe the first ten years were all mapped out, but after that, no.

 Interviewer

What gave you that kind of clarity? Did your family give you a model for it?

 Kelly McDonald

No, not at all. But then, my father’s generation of men wasn’t encouraged to be creative through art, nor was it financially viable if you had a family. If you haven’t ever been exposed to art no matter how creative you are it’s hard to pursue. Dad is quite creative, certainly with metal, but his creativity comes through his job as a fitter and turner; his hobby is making and building motorbikes. I think that’s how that generation of man expressed creativity.

 Interviewer

So if you didn’t have any artists in your family, what gave you the idea that you could be one?

 Kelly McDonald

I liked making things as a kid; I was always making things. Mum suggested that I do jewellery. I liked little shiny things, so jewellery made sense. I couldn’t get an apprenticeship, so the other option was to go to university to learn it. As I got older the idea of arts school in a big city was really appealing.

 Interviewer

 What do you say you do when people ask?

 Kelly McDonald

I’d probably say I’m a maker.

 Interviewer

Why not a jeweller?

 Kelly McDonald

‘Jewellery’ has lots of connotations and I always need to qualify that by saying I am a contemporary jeweller. And people ask, ‘What does that mean?’ and there’s a lot of explanation you have to give. Whereas if I say ‘I’m a maker’, that word carries its own weight and you can explain your materials and then say what you’re doing. Also, if you start with jewellery there’s usually a request to fix something or you get shown a diamond ring. And I don’t do stones, I have no interest in that kind of jewellery.

 Interviewer

Why don’t you do stones?

Kelly McDonald

They just don’t appeal to me.

 Interviewer

You’ve got a bunch of stones over there.

Kelly McDonald

Yeah, they’re pebbles. Beach stones, greywacke.

Other stones, they get cut and they’re not how you find them. I really like uncut stones, they have a beauty for me that is worthwhile, but the cut stones, I mean you can do that with glass as well, I don’t see the point.


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Interviewer

You call yourself a maker but do you think of your work as jewellery?

Kelly McDonald

 Only in that I belong to a jewellery community.

There’s a teeshirt somebody got printed that sums it up. It says: ‘I’m not that sort of jeweller.’

 Interviewer

Is it because there’s not a public consciousness about what contemporary jewellery is?

 Kelly McDonald

It’s growing. Wellington has the jewellery degree at Whitireia. I teach there, and we get small numbers, but every year we get five students at least and every year between two to five go through to second year. There’s growing numbers of people who want to look at contemporary jewellery and buy it. Certainly that’s the case in New Zealand. I wouldn’t say it’s so everywhere else in the world.

Interviewer

 There’s people that collect jewellery the way they would collect art?

Kelly McDonald

Yeah, and there’s an awareness too, amongst jewellers, that we need to encourage young people to become collectors so there is an investment, there’s a building of the community. I think it will continue to grow it might just not grow in massive numbers very quickly. There’s a small number of people here, but we’re always represented in the major shows overseas.

 Interviewer

Why do you think that is?

Kelly McDonald

I think our difference is interesting for people.

Interviewer

A difference to what?

Kelly McDonald

To the European aesthetic and their sets of rules. Europe is the seat of all things jewellery; there’s the largest number of jewellers there. What we do is so different to Europe—the way we express ourselves, our choice of materials, the things that we talk about with our jewellery.

Interviewer

Why do you think it’s different?

Kelly McDonald

Because we don’t have that weight of tradition on our shoulders; we don’t have this long history of how art has to be produced. We don’t have the guild system, we don’t have the hallmarking system, which is where if you want to sell or exhibit at certain places you have to send it off to be assayed then you have to apply all your hallmarking stamps. We don’t have lots of those systems.

Another thing that I see as quite different is that we don’t have a hierarchy of materials. It’s difficult to get stuff here. I had no idea, even in comparison to Sydney, where I could just ring up and have stuff on my door from the courier. But here the turn around is longer, so you make differently because you can’t get things or they’re a lot more expensive because there’s no large industry. It’s that geographic isolation at play.

Interviewer

I want to ask about the lack of guilding or standard system here. It’s fascinating because on one hand they might look at us and say, ‘Oh, they’ve got no standards’, but from what you’re saying, it actually creates more freedom.

Kelly McDonald

I think they’re both important, but the way people learn can be problematic. If you go to a traditional school, the expression of the work or the idea of the work is never put first, it’s only ever a consideration down the track or maybe not at all. This is not the way that we would think about an idea.

For example at that [a European] school you’d learn how to solder, and you’ll learn one way which is the ‘proper way’, the way that everybody has learned before, it’s the way that is financially viable and expected in a trade type jewellery shop, like Michael Hill. It’s very hard to undo that learning after and go back to freedom and a playful way of trying out new things when you already know how to solder; you can’t unknow that.

We often say that it’s like an accent, you can learn a new language but you’ll always have your accent. We show you lots of different ways of soldering, and that allows you to find your own individual way of doing this standard activity of soldering bits together. When you approach everything like that it’s a lot easier to find your own individual voice.


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Interviewer

Do you have a favourite material?

Kelly McDonald

Steel, that’s been the most consistent material I’ve stuck with.

Interviewer

What’s the attraction of steel?

Kelly McDonald

It shows time. It’s a dynamic material; it takes heat in an entirely different way. Steel is a ferrous metal; all the non-ferrous metals are things like copper, brass, silver, gold. I see it as more flexible, although most people wouldn’t think of it as flexible, but when you’re making, and heat is a big part of your making process, when you can use heat in lots of different ways as opposed to one way, then that’s flexible to me.

Interviewer

So it responds differently?

Kelly McDonald

Yes. You can heat steel in one area and it doesn’t move very quickly, it doesn’t conduct in an even way like a non-ferrous metal, like copper and brass. This is why copper is used in lots of things; it conducts evenly. With steel, if you heat one corner the other corner doesn’t heat up so you can do a lot more with it, you can have cool spots and hot spots.

Interviewer

Is it unpredictable?

Kelly McDonald

Steels have different levels of carbon and iron. I mostly use mild steel. I don’t use stainless steel, or high-carbon steels, so I find it predictable, but there’s a million things I still don’t know about steel so for me it still holds new things that I can learn.

Interviewer

When did you discover steel?

Kelly McDonald

I didn’t use steel until I was in my last year of uni, and then I didn’t use it for a long time. But I do play with all sorts of materials. Steel works really well combined with other materials, you get that contrast, which keeps it interesting. The possibility of one colour with the black or greys that you get with steel… There’s also the movement and the way two materials marry—a non-ferrous metal will move around on steel, it’ll never join with it, so you can adhere it to it but it’s not like a weld of steel with steel. So that’s an exciting thing for me, at some point I’ll get a welder and do steel to steel. One day.


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Interviewer

Do you call what you make art or craft?

Kelly McDonald

I think there’s crafting in what I do but I don’t think it’s craft. Craft has a different history, and I don’t feel like I’m talking that language. In my version of art, the artist shows a proven dedication over time. I’m new back to making and I think it’s going to take longer for me to talk about my work in relation to art, and about me as an artist.

Interviewer

Really? That’s interesting because while you didn’t make for a number of years, you’ve been doing it for a lot of your life, always heading in that direction. Do you mean that you think you must have sophisticated concepts before you can call yourself an artist?

Kelly McDonald

No. I think the sophistication comes with just going the distance; that being your mode of expression for a long time. After three years, I think I’d be presumptive to call myself an artist. I think that in five, six years, I’d be comfortable, maybe. You could ask me in another three years.

Interviewer

Do you feel like you’re still doing an apprenticeship?

Kelly McDonald

To some extent. The Handshake project has been fundamental in getting me back to making.

Interviewer

What’s that?

Kelly McDonald

It’s a mentor and exhibition programme funded by Creative New Zealand. It’s now in its third iteration. In Handshake One, there were 12 reasonably recent graduates and they selected a mentor anywhere in the world and the programme matched them up with that mentor and then they worked towards exhibitions with a certain amount of support from their mentor.

Interviewer

That’s a very innovative programme.

Kelly McDonald

Yeah, it’s unique. Internationally it’s being watched by the contemporary jewellery world through the blog sites. Each Handshake artist has a blog and posts their progress in relation to their exhibitions. We’re now at Handshake Three and possibly there will be a fourth, there’s a long commitment to it, which also keeps building that community, so the graduates coming through now know there’s something to go into.

It’s made a big difference in keeping me focused. Having external deadlines, which without I would have found it difficult to keep the motivation going.

Interviewer

What’s your star sign?

Kelly McDonald

Taurus.

Interviewer

Did you have any art influences as a child or young adult?

Kelly McDonald

I didn’t go to exhibitions; that’s just not what we did. We lived two hours out of Melbourne and we went to the city a few times a year. No doubt there were exhibitions happening locally, but it didn’t occur to mum and dad to take me, nor did it occur to me to ask to go. I went to my first exhibition when I was just finishing high school. It was a local painting show, and it might have even been part of our art class.

There was the Melbourne Show, which was an agricultural show, and throughout school you could make things for the Melbourne Show and I remember submitting something and I won a little award when I was 7 or 8, quite young, but that’s a stretch to call that exhibition experience.

Interviewer

And what about now—do you have other painters or sculptors that you love?

Kelly McDonald

There’s too many to choose from. I feel like I’m still new and until my voice is known as ‘Oh that’s hers’, I don’t want to talk about other artists. I’m still gathering bits from all sorts of places.

Actually, can you remove that question?


Images for Cat-7126


June 2016, interview by The Invisible Writer

Aaron McLean is a food photographer for magazines and cookbooks. He recently set up and published the first edition of Stone Soup, a free publication that covers a wide variety of issues around the production and provision of food, and food culture.

The photos in this interview are flasher than usual because he supplied them.


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” The way that I shoot food is really simple, anyone could do it. I basically plonk a plate next to a window and take a photograph of it.”

–Aaron McLean


Interviewer

Do you have a business card?

 Aaron McLean

No.

 Interviewer

Do you have a job title?

Aaron McLean

No, not really.

Interviewer

So when people ask you what do you do what do you say?

Aaron McLean

I try to avoid answering that question. I look to my feet and then I usually say, I take pictures, and then they say, ‘What do you take pictures of’, and I say, ‘Food’, and then they say, ‘That’s a strange thing to do’.

 Interviewer

You sound like a poet.

 Aaron McLean

Do you think so?

 Interviewer

Yeah. Poets like to avoid saying they’re poets, because it sounds pretentious or something.

Aaron McLean

If I could call myself a poet and still be able to eat, I’d say it with pride.

Interviewer

How long have you been taking pictures of food for?

 Aaron McLean

Probably about 12 years or 13 years, quite a while.

Interviewer

How did you come to doing this?

Aaron McLean

I had worked in restaurants since I left school, then I decided out of the blue that I wanted to buy a camera because I’d fallen out of love with playing the guitar badly. So I got the camera and went around the world, then I studied in Sydney.

Actually, I didn’t study, I went and worked in a restaurant that was in the basement of the Australian Centre for Photography so that I could be in that space and use their facilities; the dark rooms and the short courses they ran.

Back then, Sydney had a pretty robust food culture and Australians were further down the food path than we are now.

Interviewer

What do you mean by that?

Aaron McLean

In terms of their food culture, the understanding and enthusiasm for good quality food was greater, people were more interested. As a by-product of that interest there were a lot of food photographers and they were held in very high regard. I was exposed to them in the restaurant I worked in, and it seemed a nice way to get out of restaurants and tie what I knew into my new-found pursuit of photography.

Interviewer

So you’re a self-taught photographer?

Aaron McLean

Yes.

Interviewer

Is that what most photographers are?

Aaron McLean

There’s an industry in pumping out photographers these days, but most of the people I know who make a living from photography are self-taught.


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Interviewer

Did you have any photographers in your family?

Aaron McLean

My uncle made movies, so I guess it seemed possible, that you could do things with pictures. My cousin and both my sisters worked in film, but I was never drawn to film. Then, after I started working as a photographer, my mother told me that both my grandfather and great-grandfather had been photographers, which is a story I had never heard previously. So it’s in the genes, I just didn’t know until I’d picked up a camera.

Interviewer

What does your working day look like?

Aaron McLean

I go and take photographs, usually at the house of a food stylist.

Interviewer

So those photographs happen in their houses?

Aaron McLean

Yeah. In the era of budgets, people used studios. When I first came back to New Zealand, compared to what I was seeing in Australia, the aesthetic was still very 80s, still very entrenched in the studio.

Interviewer

What year was that?

Aaron McLean

2000-ish.

Interviewer

And it still seemed 80s?

Aaron McLean

Back then it was more about the photographer in terms of ‘look at how many lights I’ve used,’ and less about the food. Then it changed so that there was a movement towards a more photo-journalistic approach, using natural light and trying to represent the food as being real, rather than hyper-real; something that you would like to eat. So it made more sense to shoot at people’s houses because you’re using natural light and the food stylists don’t have to pack everything up, and of course publishers were even more enthusiastic about that because suddenly they didn’t have to pay for all of those things that went into doing a studio shoot.


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Office shoot


Interviewer

So what does a typical working day look like?

Aaron McLean

If you’re shooting a feature for a magazine, well it’s gentleman’s hours – you turn up at ten and you’re out of there by 4 or 5.

 Interviewer

What about getting the pictures ready to use?

Aaron McLean

Yeah, I think the move into the digital realm takes up more of your time after the shoot, because if you were in the studio you could be more efficient, editing as you go, but with digital you go back home and you’ve got all of these images to deal with.

You create a selection for an art director who then chooses what they want to publish, so they come back to you with their selections and from there you prepare the images that they’ll print.

Interviewer

And do you digitally manipulate the photos?

Aaron McLean

You colour grade the photos. You do this to give it a particular feeling, but it’s not heavily retouched because food, unlike a bikini model, wants to be real. People don’t want to eat stuff that doesn’t look real; they might aspire to other things that look better than reality.


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Set-up for a shoot


Interviewer

Do you see your photos as being an art or a craft or do you not draw that distinction?

 Aaron McLean

I think of it as a craft. I don’t think you should even attempt to put the art label on it; it’s a form of communication which is executed through craft.

When I came into photography a lot of people were lamenting the death of the craft of photography and it felt like they were all a bunch of old wankers.

 Interviewer

Why were they lamenting that?

Aaron McLean

Because technology makes things easier, and of course that’s still happening, so maybe I’ll join the chorus because it really is pretty easy to take a good picture these days. Cameras shoot acceptable photographs in the dark, the software makes things look pretty good. Some of the favourite photos I’ve taken have been on my iphone, but that’s good in that it’s a democratization of image making.

Interviewer

I read that David and Victoria Beckham’s eldest son is shooting for some fancy clothing label and there are a bunch of professional photographers up in arms about it. And the fancy label said, well yeah, he’s got a million followers on Instagram so of course we’re going with him.

 Aaron McLean

Yes, well, there’s two sides to it. Photography used to be the domain of rich white men because you had to have a lot of money to buy camera equipment. It cost me a lot of money to buy enough equipment to even walk in the door of a publisher and ask if I could work for them, and that’s still true to a point, but these days if you have some talent you can shoot on your phone, show people and you might get a break.

The flip side is that people are getting traction through their following on social media which might be the byproduct of being a very efficient narcissist, rather than being good at what you do. If you’ve got ten thousand followers you’re in, even if what you do is crap because publishing’s about eyes rather than the quality of your content.

Interviewer

Do you think that Instagram is for pictures of dinner or of cats?

Aaron McLean

Well, that speaks to the downside of the internet doesn’t it – the way it reinforces our own world view so if you’re obsessed with cats you’re only going to see cats. And the rest of us are going to see food.


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Cats or food? (credit: Aaron McLean)


Interviewer

So do you like Instagram as a method of communicating?

Aaron McLean

Yeah I do. What I like about it is that it’s a visual medium that operates like a stream of consciousness, and because it isn’t work I can be cheeky and more reflective of who I am.

When Instagram came along it was a nice opportunity to take pictures on your phone that you took little care over. It’s a way of having a conversation with people all around the world who share your interests, which is a good thing about social media in general and an antidote to some of the conversations that happen on twitter.

Interviewer

Do you think there are attributes that a photographer should have?

Aaron McLean

There was a Magnum photographer who said you should photograph the things that you love.

The way that I shoot food is really simple, anyone could do it. I basically plonk a plate next to a window and take a photograph of it. I am moving away from natural light though because it gets boring doing the same thing all the time all day. Also, there’s a shit load of people coming in and shooting like that and so there’s a conscious effort to push back towards craft, but predominantly because it gets boring. I don’t want to do the same thing everyday for the rest of my life.


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Seeds (credit: Aaron McLean)


Interviewer

Do you have a favourite food that you like photographing?

Aaron McLean

I like two extremes – I like simple, bold, still-life imagery and that could be of a vegetable that’s just been pulled out of the ground. Last year I did a series on seeds from my garden.

But then I also like what I’d call narrative photography, where you’re giving people a sense that they’re part of an occasion – a feast, with any kind of food.  And I’d like to do that in a less aspirational way.

Interviewer

That would be good. I’ve had a response to certain food magazines where I’ve actually thrown them across the room because of those pictures.

 Aaron McLean

Yeah, fuck you with your $300 plate and your $500 cutlery set.

 Interviewer

Yes, and that they’re are these very happy people, everything’s just so marvellous for them and they’re eating outside and they haven’t got any food on their shirts and no one looks harassed.

Aaron McLean

Yes, I would like to have it look more like the people that I actually entertain or have dinner with, because we like food and eat it too. But that goes back to the advertisers. We’re making content for people who can buy the Audi that’s in the ad. So we’re not making content for the people who are eating dumplings for ten bucks on Dominion Road, even though they love food just as much.

Interviewer

Do you like photographing people?

Aaron McLean

Yeah, and I’d like to do that more. I did do a phase of travel photography and that was probably my favourite thing. That’s where Stone Soup comes in, I really like stories about people and place, and food. Those sorts of stories aren’t being commissioned and I wanted an opportunity to be able to tell them.

Interviewer

Is that why you created Stone Soup, to tell those stories?

Aaron McLean

It came out of multiple things – it came out of the state of publishing and the fact that there is a whole bunch of talent that’s either idle or under-utililised. People don’t get to tell the stories that they want to tell. Instead they’re commissioned to create sponsored content and, you know, not rock the boat – don’t write about free range chooks because Rangitiki is owned by Tegal and they might not advertise with us anymore or what have you. So, we’re trying to create a platform for that sort of discussion.

Interviewer

So there’s a political intention there also?

Aaron McLean

Yeah. What was fascinating to me as somebody who went into a kind of social media political vortex is you can talk about economics endlessly, and economics are so explicitly at the root of most frustrations, and it falls on deaf ears except amongst the wonks. But food – beyond what you’re posting on Instagram of your dinner – really seems to resonate, particularly with young people.

The greatest and most positive interactions I’ve had and the real life friendships I’ve made have been around food. But not what restaurant’s hip; food security, food sovereignty, the effect of food production on the environment, our right to land to grow food…. Young people who might otherwise be politically disinterested gravitate towards it as a lens through which to make sense of some of the madness and also as a path to empowerment, a space outside of the market. It taps into the root of many real issues. And so I decided to create a platform upon which to tell very positive stories about people who think and act in that space, under a thin veil of being of the ‘food media’.

Interviewer

So who are the people you’re talking to?

Aaron McLean

They’re people who that I’ve worked with for a long time – contributors, writers, photographers – people who work in publishing but they’re all a little hamstrung by present conditions.

Interviewer

That’s a general consensus then – that these people are feeling hamstrung?

Aaron McLean

I think so, there’s varying levels of frustration. It’s not like an existential crisis, but they just think – well it would be nice to write about this and I haven’t got a platform for it within the media that I’ve found myself entrenched in because they don’t talk about those things anymore. Particularly in food where it’s become about what you can cook in five minutes on Wednesday night or what you can cook for fifteen bucks, so the food media which used to tell and which internationally still does tell more robust stories about how we produce our food and who produces it, and the environmental impacts on the production of food, the social impacts, that’s totally missing from NZ food media.

Interviewer

Do you think more of those stories are told in international media?

Aaron McLean

Yes, definitely. I don’t think it’s some sort of conspiracy so much as a self-taming, and I don’t even know that it’s conscious in a lot of instances, it’s just part of the power dynamic that exists within a publishing industry that’s desperate to hold onto its place. The advertising has disappeared. APN is in the red, these companies are only still functioning because banks don’t want to foreclose on them, and so there’s lots of pressure.

This is part of the inspiration for Stone Soup, but also it’s for me a desire to participate more in the curation and the telling of those stories rather than waiting for the phone to ring and saying yes I’ll come and photograph that lamb chop for you.

 Interviewer

Do you photograph many lamb chops?

 Aaron McLean

Well, I’ve done far too many over the years, I don’t know who gets to eat them cause they’re quite expensive these days.

Interviewer

What did you want to be when you were seven?

Aaron McLean

A ski-racer. Which, in fact, was what I was.

 


Stone Soup is on Instagram

May 2016, interview by The Invisible Writer.

 

A series of interviews with people about the work they do.

Merle Metekingi is Kaitiaki Whenua at Te Kura-a-iwi o Whakatupuranga Rua Mano in Otaki.

Kaitiaki Whenua loosely translates to English as ‘the guardian of the land’. A large part of Merle’s job involves teaching the children at the kura how to grow food. The kura has students from year 0 to 13. All classes are taught in Te Reo Māori.

This interview took place walking around the garden during term-break.


Merle crop

Merle in the kura mara, April 2016

“I really like food and I think to have good food you need to know where it’s come from and you need to have an input into making it.”

–Merle Metekingi


Interviewer

I see you’ve still got your beans up?

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, I like to give the ground a rest, we’ll just leave these ones. These are Holy Beans.

Interviewer

Why are they called Holy Beans?

Merle Metekingi

Cause they’re from Israel. [She opens a bean pod.] Oops, no, that’s just a scarlet runner. The Holy ones are white. They’re a nice bean.

Interviewer

What are you working on at the moment?

Merle Metekingi

This is our down time, so when the kids come back on Tuesday, we’ll prep a bed for planting broad beans.

Interviewer

Already?

Merle Metekingi

Yeah. They’re actually pretty quick to grow. They’ll be ready by August probably. We’ll harvest them just before spring.

Interviewer

So who eats the food you grow?

Merle Metekingi

All the kids here. We have a thing called hoko kai where the kids pay $2, and the rule is they’ve got to come to the māra and take one or two things, it doesn’t matter what it is, but it has to be combined in the cooking. So the kids will come in the morning and they’ll pick, basil or parsley or some silverbeet and that’s got to be put into the hoko kai.

Interviewer

What’s hoko kai?

Merle Metekingi

It just means, like paid food. It’s $2 no matter how many kids you’ve got, so it’s just a koha really to help. At the moment there’s not a lot to pick, everything’s gone to seed.

Interviewer

You must end up with some interesting dishes.

Merle Metekingi

It’s more a garnish in the end. It doesn’t matter if they don’t actually cook it, it can just be on top of the main meal. It’s more about the process, they’ve got to come over, pick it, take it back to the kitchen to be prepped.

Interviewer

Does that happen every day?

Merle Metekingi

It happens Tuesday to Friday.

Interviewer

So just Monday they bring their own lunch?

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, one day.

Interviewer

That’s amazing, you need to get Jamie Oliver here, you’ll be world famous in no time.

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, I think it’s a good process, it doesn’t pay for itself of course, but it’s good.


harvest at the 'kainaval'

Harvest at the kura ‘kainival’


Interviewer

So are you employed to work in this garden?

Merle Metekingi

Yep, twenty hours a week.

Interviewer

Who employs you?

Merle Metekingi

The kura. This is the first time they’ve paid someone to actually run an enviro-science programme alongside their science teachers. We’re trying to get food as an academic subject. It’s a big move.

Interviewer

So it’s part of the kura’s curriculum?

Merle Metekingi

Yeah. It’s part of the school’s philosophy of staying healthy and eating well and being holistically well. The kids get to grow the food, look after it and eat it. It’s a whole circle. Instead of going to the supermarket. A lot of the kids have no idea really, where their food comes from.


 

yacon growing


 

Interviewer

Both my grandparents had enormous vege gardens and then my Mum and Dad never even grew a lettuce, but there’s been a change back to people wanting to grow their own food.

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, like my son, who’s 27 has asked me to help him put a garden in cause he’s sick and tired of the shit food from the supermarket. He was brought up on good food, cause I always grew stuff. So now at 27, he’s going back to garden planting and he wants me to show him.

Interviewer

Do you have job title?

Merle Metekingi

Oh yeah, it’s Kaitiaki Whenua, which means like, the teacher of the land.

Interviewer

What a beautiful title. What do you do all day as Kaitiaki Whenua?

Merle Metekingi

I work 9 to 2, Tuesdays to Fridays. The first half an hour while the kids are at karakia, I do prep: find out what classes I’ll have. Every day I get a schedule with which kids are going to come here – it could be five year olds up to eighteen year olds. And I’ll have different jobs for different kids. There’s some heavy lifting that the five year olds can’t do. But they love planting, you know putting the seeds in the ground.

Once the kids have left I do maintenance stuff. When you work with kids it’s very slow. So what could take me an hour alone, can take me up to three hours with kids. But you’re not just saying, do this, do that, you’re trying to teach them the process and the overall vision at the end of it, so they’re not just thinking why are we moving that pile of sawdust from here, to there and back again. So you want to show them what that cycle is and purpose of it, otherwise it’s a meaningless activity.

Interviewer

So over the year they see the whole life cycle of the garden.

Merle Metekingi

Yes, the whole cycle of growing. We also have chickens and they get to collect the eggs every morning, they feed them and water them. They’ve got the pigs that they feed. If they’re older they can watch the process of the slaughter, then the science teacher will do an anatomy lesson on the intestines of the pig. Then the pig gets taken to the chiller, then to the butcher, then it comes back.


chook


Interviewer

And so do you have a hangi?

Merle Metekingi

Yep, we have a permanent hangi pit. We do ten to twelve hangi a year for fundraising, it can take up to 300 individual food parcels. The kids get involved and prep all the food.

Interviewer

Would all that food come from the garden?

Merle Metekingi

No. This year we’re trying to grow enough potatoes and cabbage. We grew 40 odd pumpkin but they’ve already gone, so it’s quite a lot of area needed, and help, to grow all the food. But we do try – and we’re lucky, we’re very land rich. It’s Porirua Trust land and we’re allowed to use as much as we need or want.

Interviewer

How long have you worked here?

Merle Metekingi

I’ve been volunteering for 3 years and now I’m being paid, which is quite rare. This is a whole new concept. There’s a lot of gardeners that volunteer in schools but nobody gets paid cause it’s not work that’s valued enough. So this is a real movement towards valuing gardeners more.

Interviewer

How long have you been gardening for?

Merle Metekingi

God! I’m probably going 30-40 years now, I’ve done it for a long time.

Interviewer

Is that always what you’ve done for paid work?

Merle Metekingi

No. It’s just one of those things you can pick up no matter where you are or what country you’re in. I think that’s why I started it because you can always pick up work, there’s always a need. Especially as the population gets older, people can’t maintain their gardens.

Interviewer

What does your week look like?

Merle Metekingi

I dedicate Saturday, Sunday, Monday just to my clients – I still have 24 private clients – and from Tuesday through to Friday I’m here at the kura. Probably an hour after school I’ll work privately.

 Interviewer

And what day do you take off for your rest day?

Merle Metekingi

There won’t be one now, not this term coming. It’s a really busy term because I’ve got a lot of fruit tree pruning and a lot of prep for winter gardening.

Interviewer

Do you get tired?

Merle Metekingi

No, I don’t think so. Sometimes the body gets tired but I’m always keen to keep going, I never not want to go.

Interviewer

Does the work keep you fit?

Merle Metekingi

It would have to, cause you’re walking, hauling things around. It also keeps your mind busy because you’re always thinking one step ahead of what you’re doing.

Interviewer

There’s a lot of spatial work involved in gardening too.

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, you’re always thinking if I put that plant there, how much space will that take up in five years. I think that people who can do jigsaw puzzles can have really good gardens. You know, fitting things in!


Duck

“We have duck eggs, and then we have duck.”


Interviewer

Why did you start gardening?

Merle Metekingi

I think it’s really important. I really like food and I think to have good food you need to know where it’s come from and you need to have an input into making it.We can go and buy food but we don’t know where it’s come from, how long it’s been picked for – I think it’s important to be able trace the life of your food, where the seed is sourced from, how’s it been grown, what chemicals have been used to enhance its growing. We have no idea. You can’t read that on your packaging, it doesn’t tell you. You can’t control the whole process, but if you can control where you buy your plants or seeds from and what you feed them while they’re growing that’s a fantastic things.

Interviewer

Is the soil good here?

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, we’re on fantastic soil, river silt. It’s an alluvial plane so it’s just full of nitrogen and minerals, that’s why this place has had market gardens for years and years, everyone knew it was perfect for growing; it’s light, it’s fertile, we have high sunshine hours. We used to have good rainfall but we haven’t for a while, it’s been very dry.


soil crop


Interviewer

Do you have a favourite crop?

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, one of my favourite crops is broad beans. That’s a really rewarding plant – it’s nutritional and you can do lots of things with it. And the kids love podding them, they get a lot of pleasure out of growing broad beans.

[We walk over to a stand of rhubarb.] This here rhubarb has root-stock from my grandmother in Norsewood. Normally if I Ieave the country I’ll put it somewhere, so it was in my sister’s garden for a few years, and then we I came here I took root-stock and put it in my garden at the beach, then when I moved to town I put it there and now I’ve got it here. So it’s like a root-stock that’s travelled with me, on a journey.

Interviewer

What about a favourite time of the year?

Merle Metekingi

Autumn. Cause it’s the prep time. You’ve done a big summer harvest, you’ve looked after your plants and then autumn is time to get your thoughts together. The weather is settled too, so you’re not having to water anymore, you fertilise your land. It’s very peaceful, autumn.

Interviewer

Do you have any top tips for running a successful garden?

Merle Metekingi

If you can make it into a communal garden then it’s a winner. If you can open your doors and teach people the fundamentals, then your garden will take off, because you’ll get a lot of help. Gardening is high maintenance, people forget about that.

Also, shelter is probably the most important thing in a garden. Wind’s so destructive. Plants can cope with a lot of sun and lack of water, but the wind just hammers them. If you get some shelter against your prevailing wind, block it out, then one of your biggest problems is solved.

Interviewer

What did you want to be when you were 7?

Merle Metekingi

I wanted to be a vet.

Interviewer

What happened to that idea?

Merle Metekingi

I wasn’t a very good 7th former. I spent a lot of time eating in cafes in Palmerston North and to be a vet I’d have to go back and do 7th form and I didn’t want to. But then I went to arts school instead. I went to Ilam and did fine arts for two years, but I didn’t quite finish. I was majoring in sculpture.

Interviewer

A garden’s a bit like a living sculpture.

Merle Metekingi

That’s what I think, my garden is like a pallet, that’s how I paint now.

These are our ducks! We have duck eggs and then we have duck, to eat.


cute piglet

Not Honeydew, but a very cute kura piglet


 

This here is a big pile of untreated sawdust, so all our pig effluence and what they don’t eat goes into here and then it breaks down, we cover it which cooks it, and then it goes back into the mara, it’s contained recycling.

And this is Honeydew, our pig, nobody wanted him.

Interviewer

Why not?

Merle Metekingi

He just grew too big.

I planted these trees last week – this is our orchard. These are koha trees, different visiting schools have given us these trees. They’ll all have a whakapapa about them, when they came, why they’ve been donated here. Queen Margaret Girls gave us most of these trees. They come here and do a week’s course at the marae and we host them for a week.

Interviewer

What marae?

Merle Metekingi

Tainui. They can either go to Tainui or Raukawa, depending on which one doesn’t have tangi at it.

Interviewer

Do you belong to either of those marae?

Merle Metekingi

No, I’m from Whanganui, my dad’s from Whanganui and my Mum’s from Copenhagen. I’m a fruitcake. My marae is Putiki, just as you cross the river in Whanganui.

Okay, so this is the biggest project at the moment – we have got natural spring water here. We’ve stopped the neighbours pumping the water out for their water troughs and this is what we’ve been left with. We released 125 eel into here last winter and we’ve cleared it, we’ve chopped down poplars. This is a really significant stream because it meets up with the Rangiuru which is now one of the most polluted streams on the Horowhenua coast, so if we can keep this spring going and keep it clean, there’s hope that we can clean up where it feeds into.

We’ve done riparian planting, which is a planting that will keep the stream clean – Oioi which is like a sponge and stops all the bad shit going down the stream, and we’ll put flax in and we’ll create a habitat where things can live again like eel, our native fish, our crawlies.

This stream has been totally neglected for a long time, so this is the big plan. This is a project that the whole kura will be involved in. We want to turn it into a community project, it’s not just ours. This stream runs all the way down to the sea, so we want to do this part and then another kura do the next part, so we want to hikoi down. But this is what we can do at the moment.

Interviewer

Are the eels surviving?

Merle Metekingi

Some are, the kids found two the other day. Of course they can make their own journey, they don’t have to stay here, and it’s not a great habitat for them at the moment, because there’s not enough cover, so we want to get the planting up this winter.

Interviewer

What’s the best part and worst part of your job?

Merle Metekingi

The best part is working with the kids. The worst part is not having enough time with them, you only have four hours a day and we’ve got a lot of big projects on.

Interviewer

Do you feel like you can be your true self?

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, I can just be me, that’s what I love about it, I’d hate to have to put on different hats. Here, I wear one hat and it covers a big range. And I’ve got a lot of support from the kura for my vision. It’s amazing really. This kura is an immersion school so it’s mostly focused on the language. I think we’ve got the highest percentage of people speaking Te Reo anywhere in New Zealand.

Interviewer

Di Hakaraia said to me it was 50% of Māori living here were speaking Māori.

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, and that’s not counting kids, that’s just adults.

Interviewer

When you’re on the main street in Otaki you always hear Te Reo being spoken.

Merle Metekingi

Yeah. What I think about is we’ve got the language, we’ve got to look after the whenua, because if we don’t look after the whenua, there’ll be no language spoken because there’ll be no people. It’s a different head space for a lot of people to move into.

That’s where enviro-schools are really good to have, they’re an association and New Zealand’s got Māori enviro-schools. They teach sustainability, so we try and work that into lessons as well.

Interviewer

What’s your star sign?

Merle Metekingi

Capricorn.

Interviewer

If you didn’t have to work for money what would you do?

Merle Metekingi

This. I worked here for 3 years for no money and achieved this, so it’s a bonus that I can now work a concentrated 4 hours a day and get a lot more done. Yeah, this is great.


 

May 2016, interview by The Invisible Writer.

A series of interviews with people about the work they do.

Fay Far is well known in the Island Bay community in Wellington. Along with her husband, Bill, she has owned and managed the Island Bay Stationers since 1973.

Fay is 83 and Bill is 90 years old. In October this year they plan to retire and close their shop.


“I couldn’t hold myself back because I do love the children’s books.”

–Fay Far

IMG_0577

Bill and Fay Far, April 2016

 


Interviewer

I saw the poet, Anne Kennedy last night and she said to say hello.

Mrs Far

Oh! I know Anne, she’s a local girl, Anne Kennedy. Knew her when she was a little girl and they used to live in Eden Street, then they moved down to 104 The Parade. Her father used to work in the gas company, and her mother was a lovely, lovely lady.

Interviewer

She told me you were the most beautiful woman in Island Bay.

Mrs Far

Well, that’s a bit outrageous.

Interviewer

Do you call yourself a stationer or a bookshop owner?

Mrs Far

I say, I’ve got a bookshop.

Interviewer

When did you set the shop up?

Mrs Far

The 28th May 1973. My youngest daughter’s eighth birthday. So we know how old we are each year – she’s 53 and we’re [the shop] 45.


IMG_0572

Original paisley wallpaper, Island Bay Stationers


Interviewer

Had you ever worked in a shop before?

Mrs Far

Oh, yes. You always helped all the uncles and aunties in the fruit shops.

Interviewer

Did you grow up working in a fruit shop?

Mrs Far

No, my father was a laundryman, in the days when the old chaps had their starched collars. I was born in Palmerston North and in Palmerston North there were a lot of Joes. I was a Joe. So it’s almost like a tribe. In Chinese you’re Wongs, or Youngs, or Yings or Yangs. You’re not related by blood, but you’re related by generations and the groups of names. A lot of them might have the same great, great, great grandfather way back. We’re very respectful of family. I had lots of older people who called me Aunty because my father’s generation was older than their father’s generation.

Interviewer

So did all the Joes work in laundry?

Mrs Far

No. I don’t have any other family. Just my father worked there. I’m an only child. But in the centre of Palmerston North town there was a fruit shop on every side of the square and they were all Joes.

Interviewer

Would people mix up where they’d shop or would they always go to the same place?

Mrs Far

Mostly they tend to go to the same place. I remember the jockey, Billy Broughton, and his wife, they wouldn’t come until about ten o’clock on a Friday night [she laughs], I don’t know why. People tend to do that. In the bookshop here, we’ll have people who come in and out all week, but they won’t take the books til Friday because they want to read them at the weekend.

Interviewer

Can you describe to me what each day’s work entails?

Mrs Far

The shop opens at 8.30am. Bill opens while I’m finishing up in the house, then he takes his papers out to the few boys that he delivers to, and then comes back. So we’re in the shop from 8.30am to 5.30pm.

Interviewer

Do you take a break?

Mrs Far

Oh yes, we have morning tea and lunch. Afternoon tea.

Interviewer

Do you shut the shop while you do this?

Mrs Far

No, we take turns.

Interviewer

Through the day what are you doing?

Mrs Far

Mondays and Thursdays are magazine day, so you have to unwrap all the magazines and price them, get them up on the shelves. Well, Bill does that. And I do the orders and I serve the customers of course. General tidying up. Cards, birthday cards and that. There’s a good business in birthday cards, hundreds of people buy cards. I sell a lot of cards. I swap things around. I generally tidy and serve. Oh, and of course I do all the paper work. That’s what kills you. Paper work. And it’s worse now.

Interviewer

Do you use a computer for your paperwork?

Mrs Far

No! I’m old fashioned. I hate the computer. That’s what’s killing me, that’s why I’m getting rid of the shop because I just can’t keep up with it.

Interviewer

How old were you when you started working?

Mrs Far

Oh, I was a little kid. We always had little jobs to do, that’s the way we all grew up.

Interviewer

So you’ve been working for a good 75 years?

Mrs Far

Oh, I should think so. Yes. I have. I’ve worked hard too.

Interviewer

What made you decide to open your own shop?

Mrs Far

Four children [she laughs]. Money. We had to make some money. My husband just worked for his father, and he’s one of eight. They came to Island Bay in 1951 and then we got married in 1955 and we lived up on the hill, but he still worked for his father. Then we moved down to Clyde St, that’s when we decided we just had to do something. We’d always wanted the bookshop.


FullSizeRender 2


Interviewer

You wanted to open a bookshop?

Mrs Far

No, we wanted this bookshop. It belonged to Mr, oh, I forget his name… Dallow! And on top of the building next door that’s where he originally was, that was Dallow’s Building, but they’ve taken the name off when they did some alterations.

Well, we leased the building with the shop, then this building came up for sale. And the man who owned this place, a very nice man said, come to my shop. And you couldn’t do alterations next door because there was a big step. So we came here and we’ve been here ever since. We put the concrete down, right through. It’s too big probably, because I’ve let it get away from me. I love the children’s books.

Interviewer

You’ve got a lot of children’s books.

Mrs Far

And I’ve got a couple of rooms full out the back [she laughs]. So I’ve just let it run away from me. I couldn’t hold myself back because I do love the children’s books.

Interviewer

You introduced me to Anthony Browne.

Mrs Far

Oh, I love Anthony Browne! I love the artists, the illustrators.

Interviewer

You’re a Shirley Hughes fan too, aren’t you?

Mrs Far

Oh, yes, Shirley Hughes! The children in her pictures look like kiwi children.

Sarah Garland, she’s wonderful. And her daughter lives in Island Bay. A very clever lady, an artist.

Interviewer

What is that you love about children’s books?

Mrs Far

I think the good authors can really express themselves at a children’s level. They don’t talk down to them, but they make it interesting for the kids. I really like the illustrations and I love books without words because you can make your own story and that’s what I like to see the children do. I find it very hard to choose a favourite book because there’s so many that I love.

Oh, here’s Daisy [a small dog runs up to us] and this is my brother-in-law. Daisy comes to visit a lot. She’s lovely. Eddie’s my youngest brother in law. He’s the baby brother.

Interviewer

Do you ever take holidays?

[Eddie laughs loudly.] ‘I’ll answer that,’ he says. ‘No!’

Mrs Far

We don’t. I did go away for five days at Christmas, but my husband doesn’t like holidays. So he looked after the shop and I went to see my daughter in Australia. But soon I’ll be able to have a holiday all the time. We don’t get much time for holidays. My kids always say stop working all the time, but it’s not hard work, it’s enjoyable, it’s just gone on too long.

My husband says why do you talk so much? Well, I say, you do too, he talks when his friends come in. I told him, I could be the only person that they’ve seen today, the only person that they’ve said hello to. There’s a lot of lonely people, living on their own. Some of them just come to pass the time of day. My brother in law, he was just like that in the fruit shop, he’s very much a people person too.

Interviewer

Do you need to be a people person to run a shop?

Mrs Far

Oh definitely, you need to like people. I mean, you may hate them but you still have to like them. You shouldn’t be in this sort of business with the public unless you can have a rapport with them.

Interviewer

Do you get paid for doing this work?

Mrs Far

Of course. We’re partners. I don’t get paid enough [laughs]. But it’s our business, it’s our partnership and we’ve done alright out of it. Well, we’ve worked hard at it.

My husband he’s only done retail work since he come to New Zealand. He came in 1939 from Canton and he’s been here ever since.


IMG_0579

Painting of the shop done by Michael McCormick, gifted to Bill Far for his 90th birthday


Interviewer

Do you feel you can be your true self here?

Mrs Far

Yes, I’m just me.

Interviewer

Do you have favourite customers?

Mrs Far

Oh, lots!  I have some dear old ladies and lots of people we get on with so well. I know nearly every kid’s name in the suburb. We have watched families grow up here, know the parents, the children, and now the children’s children.

Interviewer

What sort of things do the customers say?

Mrs Far

The worst one is when they start a sentence with ‘You don’t have…?’ I say, ‘Well, that’s a very inappropriate question, you haven’t asked me yet.’

Some people always say the same thing when they come in, it’s a habit.


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Interviewer

What’s the worst type of customer?

Mrs Far

People with aggressive behavior, and surly, there are not many like that but you will get some. Mostly they’re all lovely.

Interviewer

Are you good at maths?

Mrs Far

I am not good at maths, I could never understand what that silly little letter was in algebra. But I know my tables and I can add in my head very well.

Interviewer

What do you like the most and the least about your job?

Mrs Far

I just love to see the children enjoying the books and I love the enthusiasm of some parents. I’ve got one lady who comes from Christchurch and she always comes in when she’s in town and tells her children, ‘Come and see Fay.’ We’re very, very lucky. We have excellent customers. You get the odd one, but you don’t let it ruffle your feathers [lowers voice], unless you’re my husband. But we’re very lucky, as people have known us for so long.

There’s not much I don’t enjoy. I don’t like the paperwork, that kills me.

Interviewer

What sort of clothes and shoes do you wear at work?

Mrs Far

Comfortable clothes, I don’t get flash. Sneakers, because I get sore feet when I wear my heels. I used to dress up nicely. Bill used to wear a collar and tie. But not now. You’ve got to be comfortable. If you’ve got sore feet you can’t do anything.

Interviewer

What’s your star sign?

Mrs Far

Aries.

Interviewer

If you didn’t have to work for money what would you do with your time?

Mrs Far

I don’t have to work for money. But what would I do – I’d garden, like any other person. I’d like to do some of the things I’ve never been able to do.

 


April 2016, interview by The Invisible Writer.

A series of interviews with people about the work they do.

Riki Gooch is a drummer and percussionist. He was one of the original members of the much-loved Trinity Roots, and is now the drummer in psychedelic dance band, Orchestra of Spheres. His solo album as Eru Dangerspiel, Great News for the Modern Man, was released in 2010 and he also creates music under the name Cave Circles. Riki lives in Wellington.


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“Most people think that a band is three musicians and a drummer.”

–Riki Gooch

 

 

 

 

 


Interviewer

Do you call yourself a drummer or a percussionist?

Riki Gooch

If I want people to take me seriously I’ll call myself a percussionist. Most people think that a band is three musicians and a drummer. I think Animal from The Muppets helped form this really negative stereotype of drummers, that they’re ‘special people’.

Interviewer

What’s the difference then?

Riki Gooch

Well, with percussion, the role is quite varied and would cover a wider range of instruments like timpani, snare, tuned percussion, marimba. As a drummer you’re mostly playing a drum kit, like a typical American kit that you find in a rock band; kick drum, snare, toms and high hats.


 

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Riki Gooch’s favourite instrument: SP – 404 sampler


What about when you’re playing the 404?

The term ‘producer’ has been going around for a while – it’s where people sit in their bedroom and sample a bass drum and a snare drum and a vocal sample and then all of sudden they’re a producer, which I think is a bit generous. It’s a compositional tool, and you can use it live. It fits into the percussion family quite nicely, because you have to play it.

What does a drummer have to do then?

If you’re doing your job you should keep everything feeling right and keep the momentum of the music moving nicely. Steve Gadd, a famous American drummer, said, ‘A good drummer makes every thing feel good,’ and I reckon he nailed it.

Interviewer

Do you get paid for your work as a drummer?

Riki Gooch

I’ve found that the more you get paid in terms of playing on a job, the worse the music is. Quite often there’s no money in the interesting projects but you do them because they’re exciting and challenging.

I don’t make a living from it. I did for a short while when I was playing the drums full time, but to do this you spend a lot of energy helping other projects which you might not be into, and when it comes to making your own music you’re exhausted.

I think to make good music you need to do other stuff, outside of music. That’s why I started making pizza as a day job. That became a nice balance because then it meant I didn’t have to do drumming jobs I didn’t like.

Interviewer

So you’re drawing a line between making drum sounds and making art?

Riki Gooch

I guess so, each project or job is always really different. You might have a singer/songwriter where you just go in and play the song. Sometimes you’re asked to bring in ideas to help it along, and they’re the most exciting jobs – where you’re asked to bring something to it.

Interviewer

How did you get into drumming?

Riki Gooch

I never thought of playing music as a job, I always just played music. And with Trinity Roots we were busy and could make a bit of a living off that because we were doing lots of gigs. I met lots of people and after Trinity a lot of work started coming in, and one job leads to another. Your latest album becomes your business card.


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Trinity Roots – Rio Hunuki-Hemopo, Warren Maxwell, Riki Gooch


Interviewer

Was Trinity the first band you were in?

Riki Gooch

Yeah, it was the first band that recorded and toured. In Dunedin I was in a bunch of bands but more for fun, they weren’t bands with a press kit or a music video.

Interviewer

Did you and Rio [Hunuki-Hemopo, bass player] and Warren [Maxwell, guitarist and lead singer] make a conscious decision to be a professional band?

Riki Gooch

No, it just kind of evolved like that. Trinity started in a really good place, it was so different to anything I’ve ever experienced and was quite a special time. The idea was just to do some café gigs, because we were all at school either teaching or studying and we wanted to get away from music theory and just do one chord, three chord songs. People liked it and it just kept growing, we never imagined we’d do as well as we did.

Interviewer

Can you be your true self working as a drummer or do you have to wear a suit of armour to do the work?

Riki Gooch

It depends on who you’re working for. There’s been cases where I’ve really had to wear a suit of armour because there’s a big budget involved and it’ll be for a big label or a big artist so you have to be really ‘on’ all the time, because there’s so much money involved.

Interviewer

Does that affect your playing?

Riki Gooch

It does, yeah. You’re just there to do a job like a plumber coming to fix a tap and it’s quite obvious whether it’s working or not. But in the Orchestra of Spheres who I’m playing with now, I totally bring myself to it, there’s no weird ego/hierarchy thing going on; it’s just a very generous musical environment.

Interviewer

What’s the strangest gig you’ve ever played?

Riki Gooch

I did a solo gig at an outdoor BBQ restaurant just out of Beiing, in China. It was like a shanty town, old and run down and in the middle of the restaurant was this massive blue cellphone tower. Some locals got together to rewire a PA system so they could get some sort of sound coming out of it. It was just me on the drum machine and I played lots of banging techno. Heaps of kids turned up. At the BBQ we ate sheep’s penis, worms, all sorts of crazy stuff. I hope they liked the music.


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The blue cellphone tower in the middle of the BBQ restaurant, China


Interviewer

Do you think people can learn good timing?

Riki Gooch

Yep, totally. We’re constantly living in a state of rhythm and rhythmic patterns just through having a pulse and breathing. The way to get timing in a musical context is through repetition; playing to a set time with a metronome. That way you train your brain and your body to be consistent with the time, with the pulse. I think anybody can learn it if they spend the time and repeat it enough, do the 10,000 hours thing.

Interviewer

I heard that when most people clap along to music they clap on the first and the third beat.

Riki Gooch

It’s true most people clap on the 1 and the 3 which is always pretty funny.

Interviewer

Do you?

Riki Gooch

I have no idea what I do! Sometimes I catch myself playing around with patterns in my head, so I probably don’t clap on the 1 and the 3.

It’s funny though, how people feel the need to join in – there’s a song we do with the [Orchestra of] Spheres which starts with a clapping pattern that Nell and Erika play. When they start clapping everyone in the audience starts clapping along and it always gets really messy. On stage you can’t hear what’s going on. It’s this weird social cue we have as humans, as soon as anyone starts clapping or implying a beat we feel we need to join in. We probably don’t need to.

Interviewer

It’s a strong impulse though.

Riki Gooch

Yeah, I guess the thing is that music is a social act – it’s a survival mechanism, we used to communicate rhythms to tell people the food was ready, or that there were people coming to invade your village.

Interviewer

Yeah, armies used to march to the beat the drummer made – apparently they made the drummer a child so they were smaller and harder to aim at.

Riki Gooch

That’s a good idea!

 Interviewer

What’s your favourite time pattern?

Riki Gooch

I’m really into playing in groups of 7. There’s a different momentum, a different energy to it. 9 is really good, I’m not too sure why though. I guess it’s the way your brain feels when it has to work through those different time signatures. I made a piece last night in 11/8, just a little experiment and that was quite cool too. It’s interesting because time patterns have different energies. 4/4 is earthy, you know, it’s dirt and soil and quite centered. Then you get up to your 5s and 7s and they feel more cosmic, off the planet.

Interviewer

Have you got a mathematical brain?

Riki Gooch

I think you do as a drummer because you’re always subdividing groups of things. But I wasn’t good at maths at school, I was more focused on music in school than on maths. But there’s definitely a strong element of maths in music especially in harmony, the harmonic series and how that all works. Then there’s the rhythm tree, one beat can split off into other things. But that maths is quite specific to music.

Interviewer

What do you like the most and the least about your job?

Riki Gooch

I always loved feeling and seeing a connection happen with the audience, whether they’re dancing, or getting lost in the music or just enjoying it. Hearing the end product after all the rehearsal and practice is good.

I love the feeling of playing too, when you get to that stage where you’re not really thinking about anything, you’re just in a state of relaxation. I think it’s really important to be relaxed with music. It’s kind of like a meditation because you’ve got all these things going on, but being still is really crucial.

I also love the community of drummers too, especially in Wellington, there’s a bunch of people sharing ideas. When you decide to become a drummer you’re showing a strong personality trait, you know? You want to be at the back of the band, you don’t want to be at the front.

The thing I don’t like is the packing down, carrying stuff around.

Interviewer

Do you think drummers are the fittest people in the band?

Riki Gooch

Yeah, it’s cardio workout, so I guess you do get pretty fit. But then there’s some amazing drummers who are monster-sized drummers, extremely overweight. In the end it would depend on the music; if you’re playing death metal you’re going to need to be quite fit.

It is really physical though – I’ve shredded my hands so many times with the friction against the sticks. I don’t play like that anymore. It was mostly with Trinity where the songs were quite loud and full-on. Your hands start sweating and the wood’s constantly rubbing against your skin and you finish the gig and you’ve just got these big chunks of skin ripped off, it’s quite disgusting. Blood all over the drums.

Interviewer

What did you want to be when you were 7?

Riki Gooch

I wanted to join the air force and be a pilot and also be a doctor, possibly at the same time. When you’re seven you just think I’ll be a pilot and once I’ve done that I’ll be a doctor. For a science fair project I did a thing on the aorta and I built a heart. I was really into how the body works, but then music started seeping in and became like a passion, but I never imagined it as a job, just as something that I’d do.

Interviewer

Would you encourage young drummers to purse music, but say ‘you have to get a trade as well’?

Riki Gooch

Yeah, I think you need a balance, especially if you’ve got a family because sometimes the work’s not there. Most of your money comes from traveling and doing gigs, but if you’ve got kids you can’t go away all the time. Warren [Maxwell of Trinity] was a chippy before he did music, which was a really onto it, I reckon.

Interviewer

What did you think of that film, Whiplash?

Riki Gooch

It was awful. For a start I thought the drumming was quite average, I thought they could have paid a bit more attention to that seeing as it was a film about a jazz drummer. Also, the whole thing was what I hate about the jazz scene – this competitive macho thing with music – where they’re like ‘Are you a dragger or are you a pusher?’ It’s a beautiful art form, it comes from the ghetto, it’s not a sport. I didn’t like that film.

Interviewer

Do you encounter many prejudiced attitudes in your line of work?

Riki Gooch

You do. Even with my parents, they’re like – ‘So you got a real job yet?’ Music’s not a job. I always used to think it was a bit of an insult, but now I kind of get what they mean. That prejudice can be negative and positive – like, ‘Wow you’re a drummer’, and then people want to tell you all about their favourite albums. Some people ask, ‘What do you do?’ And when I say ‘I’m a drummer,’ they’re like, ‘Right, fair enough, enjoy your hobby do you?’ There’s that idea about music being a hobby. Which is maybe a good idea anyway!

You get prejudice from some classical players too. I did a gig with Bic Runga and an orchestra in Christchurch once and I had the drum kit up by the conductor and they barricaded me in this glass case, and the first violins were giving me these looks, like – ‘What’s that drummer doing down the front? Put him in the cage!’

Interviewer

What are the people like that you work with?

Riki Gooch

Mostly awesome, amazing people, and a real mixed bunch. I’ve got friends who are great musicians who go hunting pigs, and other people in the same band who might hate that idea. The common thread is that most musicians are quite sensitive to the world and to what’s going on emotionally. They’re also quite driven people.

Further up the chain you go with musicians who are very successful, who are earning lots of money, the tendency to be an arsehole is greater, which I guess comes partly from the pressure they’re under, the pressure to be good again. I think those artists get removed from the real world because of their status.


 

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Riki in Orchestra of Spheres head-wear


Interviewer

What sort of clothes and shoes do you wear to work?

Riki Gooch

Your footwear needs to be light, like kung-fu or Commando M type shoes. If the soles are too thick it’s hard to feel your way around. I like to wear loose clothing, so I can breathe and feel comfortable. But with the Spheres we’ve got lots of costumes so often I might be wearing a turban with a bunch of LED lights wrapped around it. We wear glasses too which sometimes is problematic when you’re trying to cue each other; no one can ever see what’s going on. It can lead to some confusion on stage.

You sweat. Especially once you add the heat from stage lights and a crowd of people heating up a room. I always take a change of clothes for after gigs so I don’t get sick. After a gig you’re walking outside at night and you get cold.

Roger Sellers, a treasure of a man whose been teaching at Conservatorium [of Music in Wellington] for a long time now told me years ago, ‘The first piece of advice I have is when you finish a gig, have a shower so you don’t get cold’. I was like, yep, I’ll remember that Roger!

Interviewer

If you didn’t have to work for money what would you do with your time?

Riki Gooch

I’d become a full-time Dad. That would be the dream job, I’d do that all day. And still do music. Those two things.


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Riki and his daughter, Maia


Interviewer

What’s your Star sign?

Riki Gooch

Capricorn. My birthday’s the same date as Mel Gibson and Christina Aguilera.

Interviewer

Peanut Butter – crunchy or smooth?

Riki Gooch

Crunchy. Or both actually, a smooth base down first then crunchy on top. That’s quite good.

 


Click link below to watch Riki Gooch giving a short timpani demonstration.

https://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=162927818&force_embed=vimeo.com&fullscreen=1


April 2016, interview by The Invisible Writer.

A series of interviews with people about the work they do.

Ashleigh Young is a poet, essayist, teacher of science writing and editor at Victoria University Press. Her first collection of poems, Magnificent Moon, is magnificent. A collection of essays, Can You Tolerate This? is forthcoming in 2016. She also has a blog called eyelashroaming.


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“I got the job and became this terrible editor who didn’t know anything.”

–Ashleigh Young

 

 

 

 


 

Interviewer

Does your job have title?

Ashleigh Young

Yes, I am an Editor at Victoria University Press (VUP). It feels nice to have a title. For half of the year I am also a Tutor in Science Writing, but that’s a whole other can of worms so I’m going to focus on my main day-to-day job.

Interviewer

Can you describe the things you do in your job?

Ashleigh Young

I work with a lot of writers to help them get their books ready to go out in the world. I edit books of poetry, short story collections, some nonfiction (mostly the memoir sort of nonfiction), and the odd novel. I’ve just finished editing Danyl McLauchlan’s second novel, Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley, which was one of the most fun novels I’ve ever edited.

Alongside the editing I try to be supportive and encouraging, especially for first-time authors who are still getting their heads around the whole process. I like editing to be a conversation, a process of suggestion and refinement, rather than me tearing bits off someone’s work and scolding them for using too many adverbs or semicolons or whatever.

I typeset the books and sometimes help find a cover image or commission one from an illustrator. I write a few back-cover blurbs. I have a bit of a fixation with a good blurb. A well-done blurb is such a thing of beauty. My journey in blurbs is really only just beginning.

Also, roughly one-third of my job at VUP is giving editorial feedback to academics who have written research proposals to the Marsden Fund. That’s quite tough. It’s fast-paced and the applications – in all sorts of fields: biology, statistics, engineering, psychology – use highly technical language. It’s incredibly impressive, the kinds of projects people are doing. All I can do is try to make their proposals a little bit easier to read.

Interviewer

Do you get paid for doing this work?

Ashleigh Young

Yes. Thank god. After a few years of not having much money I am very, very grateful to be paid. A part of me still can’t quite believe it.

Interviewer

How did you get into editing?

Ashleigh Young

I started off doing some freelance writing for Learning Media while I was working as a shop girl at Dymocks Booksellers. I wrote little chapter books about Greek mythology and recycling and the solar system, that sort of thing. Kate De Goldi got me into that, because I’d done her Writing for Children course.

Then suddenly a job came up at Learning Media for Writer/Editor. So I went for it. I knew I could hack my way through the writing part of it. And I knew I had some kind of instinct for what worked in a sentence and in a story. But that’s all it was – instinct. I couldn’t explain any of it. And often my instincts were just wrong. Also, I had no idea how a publishing company worked. I didn’t know any of the proofreading marks. I didn’t even really know how to proof a text. Anyway, I got the job and became this terrible editor who didn’t know anything. An amazing editor called Simon Minto, who became a good friend, took me under his wing and taught me a lot.


 

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“After a few years of not having much money I am very, very grateful to be paid.”


Interviewer

Do you feel that you can be your true self in this job or do you have to wear a suit of armour to do the work?

Ashleigh Young

My job at VUP is the first job I’ve felt I can be my true self, whatever that is, on the whole. It took a while to get used to. The time I have to put on the armour is at book launches and other literary events. If I am giving a speech I always wear so much armour you can practically hear me clanking about.

Interviewer

 What is the strangest piece of work you’ve done in this job?

Ashleigh Young

I think it was working on Rachel Bush’s book Thought Horses. Rachel was in the last stages of a terminal illness. Knowing that this would be her last book – that maybe this phone call would be the last, or this email – it was a privilege at the same time as being very sad and unsettling. She died on the day that her book came back from the printer. A week before that, we sent her a bound proof, so at least she was able to see her book.

Interviewer

What do you like most about editing?

Ashleigh Young

I love reading a manuscript and getting excited about it because I know it’s really good. I know when it’s good because I get a tingly feeling (that’s science). Also, I really enjoy my conversations with writers over email and even in tracked changes in MS Word. It’s the perfect way for an introvert to have conversations.

 Interviewer

And what’s the worst part?

Ashleigh Young

Riding up the hill to work. The roads leading to the university are narrow and busy and a lot of drivers are impatient. I also hate how long it takes me to stop sweating and cool down once I reach my desk. I drip sweat all over my desk and the carpet. It’s just not very professional.


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“Verbification has been useful to English for centuries – we wouldn’t have verbs like ‘mail’, ‘ship’, or ‘rain’ without it.”


 

Interviewer

When you were seven years old what did you want to be?

Ashleigh Young

A famous pianist and singer like Elton John.

 Interviewer

Do you encounter prejudiced attitudes very much in your work?

Interviewer

Very rarely. Just occasionally, I get the feeling that some older people in the literary world don’t quite trust a younger person with their work – that they don’t really take me seriously. Then again, I’m quite a paranoid person.

Interviewer

What are the people like that you work with?

Ashleigh Young

They’re a dream team.

Interviewer

What sort of clothes and shoes to you wear at work?

Ashleigh Young

There’s no real dress code here (or, I’ve been operating on the assumption that there isn’t). I love nice clothes but I also like being comfortable, so often I just wear my old faithful denim skirt and a shirt. Lots of cardigans. Lately I’ve taken to shining my shoes, which I think gives me a certain edge over other people in the office. Sometimes my clothes look odd because I’ve put them in my bike pannier the night before and haven’t thought the outfit through. Also, unfortunately my coworkers often see me in my running or cycling gear. For book launches I try to get dressed up a bit and wear a nice frock.


 

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“Lately I’ve taken to shining my shoes, which I think gives me a certain edge over other people in the office.”


 

Interviewer

If you didn’t have to work for money, what would you do with your time?

Ashleigh Young

I’d keep hanging around the office until they told me to leave. Then I would immediately find some way to structure my time otherwise I would go crazy. I’d help out at the SPCA. I’d tutor English. I’d dig vegetable gardens. Basically, I’d try to help others in a more fundamental way. I would also learn how to cook properly and how to do proper bike maintenance. I might even learn how to drive a car. There are so many grown-up things I haven’t learnt how to do yet. I need to go to some kind of finishing school.

 Interviewer

What’s your star sign?

Ashleigh Young

Cancer. I’m textbook: the hard shell, the sensitive innards.

 Interviewer

Pride and Prejudice – the movie, TV series or the book?

Ashleigh Young

The book. Also, there’s this essay by Helen Garner about reading Pride and Prejudice. I liked that a lot more than Pride and Prejudice itself.

Interviewer

What’s in that cupboard?


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Ashleigh Young

We keep our Poet in Residence in there.

Interviewer

Do you have a word that you really don’t like people using in writing?

Ashleigh Young

I don’t like it when people say ‘a female’ instead of a girl, woman, or lady. In certain contexts it’s oddly dehumanising, sort of clinical. I also dislike the word ‘drool’, but people like Danyl [McLauchlan] insist on using it.

 Interviewer

What is one of the common mistakes people make in writing English (apart from misuse of apostrophes)?

Ashleigh Young

They’re all kind of boring. Affect/effect, overcorrection of ‘anymore’, misspelling of place names.

This is slightly different but one big mistake, I think, is lording it over others when a mistake is spotted. ‘Look at this hilariously wrong apostrophe on this sign, by some idiot signwriter who doesn’t know anything’, sort of thing. It’s tedious and snobbish. These tend to be the same people who start hand-wringing when new forms become accepted into English usage.

One argument that’s been going on for a while is around verbification – i.e. when a noun becomes a verb, such as to favourite, to bookmark, to friend. (A lot of new-ish verbs are coming from the internet.) I hear people say that these new verbs are ugly, that they aren’t proper English. But verbification has been useful to English for centuries – we wouldn’t have verbs like ‘mail’, ‘ship’, or ‘rain’ without it. English has always been a mongrel of a language that thrives on openness and change. That’s not to say I fully embrace all new verbs, like some of the ones you see in the corporate world, like ‘solutioning’ or ‘actioning’. I also recently saw ‘food’ used as a verb, like, ‘The fooding area’. The fooding area! Actually, maybe that one is acceptable because it’s funny. I just struggle with new words that seem designed to make a person or company look cleverer than they really are.

 

April 2016, interview by The Invisible Writer

When we got home we found six tadpoles had died. Cooked in their tank. You cooked squid and offered me a piece which I ate, thinking all the time of the tadpoles’ grey, jellied bodies, upside down on a layer of slime.

 

We have sex and talk about regret. I regret I didn’t take more class A drugs. You regret you didn’t have sex with more people. I clean the windows to achieve a better clarity of light.

 

Everyone’s either bigger or smaller in real life. At the beach we watched Javier Badem rise up out the water like a flabby, out-of-work Poseidon. His arms were covered in fish tattoos. Then, as we left, Dennis Hopper rode past. An emaciated frame, off the top of which hung stringy pale hair. A life dedicated to retro bicycles. In twenty years the ocean will be so acidic only jellyfish will be able to live in it. All the movie stars we love today will be dead.

 

After a while it seems like everyone is dying. Even the kids, although they show no signs of decline.

 

Your mother on the other hand, is taking forever to die. She lies in her bed at your sister’s house, oxygen pumped through a tube in her nose. Another plastic tube takes urine out. One of the kids pretends the plastic bag is full of juice. An atheist all her life, your mother now tells you you’re a sinner, for leaving the faith. She asks which Greek political party won’t allow umbrellas.

 

Imagine a world without blame. I can’t.

 

Geoff came into the office with answers for me. No questions, but a nicely typed series of answers on a single piece of paper he had folded in his shirt pocket. He wore new pants that he’d bought with his laureate money. ‘Do you really like them?’ he said. ‘My mother thinks they’re too young for me.’ He pointed out where he’d had his sleeves patched at the elbows. ‘Humanity’s a disgrace,’ he said. ‘Did you know they send all the Wellington mail to Palmerston North to sort it? Then they send it back again.’

 

I blame you for buying the tadpoles. I blame the kids for not moving the tadpole tank out of the sun. A family is for having someone to blame other than your self.

 

It seems that I’ve fallen into some sort of ditch. A fizzy soda warps my thoughts and every morning I cough up my lungs. I can’t complain, and yet I still do.

 

The milk has a fishy taste.

 

And yet you still love me.

 

And yet I still love you.

‘…how can man “know himself”? He is a thing obscure and veiled: if the hare have seven skins, man can cast from him seventy times seven, and yet will not be able to say “Here art thou in very truth; this is outer shell no more.” Also this digging into one’s self, this straight, violent descent into the pit of one’s being, is a troublesome and dangerous business to start. A man may easily take such hurt, that no physician can heal him.’
–from Schopenhauer as Educator by Friedrich Nietzsche.

 

One recent morning as I was trying desperately to leave the house for work, shouting at the kids to get their jackets bags shoes on. I ran back to the bedroom to grab my watch, scanned the dresser for it and was brought to a halt by a sharp stench. I smelt shit. Cat shit.

This was not the first time our elderly blind cat had toileted under the bed so I immediately knew what the foul smell was. She did it one Saturday a few weeks ago when David and I were sitting in bed, drinking tea and reading. She walked into the bedroom, gave a doleful moan of a meow to announce herself, crawled under the bed and squatted. I couldn’t hear the piss hitting my yoga mat, stored under the bed, but as soon as I could smell the pungent ammonia which seemed to be rising in waves, like heat rises off the road in summer, my mind’s eye could also see how the piss pooled and ran along the folds of the mat to spill onto the wooden boards beneath. I leapt out of bed to stop her, to stop the piss from running everywhere. My lie-in was ruined. My mood, instantly vile.

Since that morning we’d tried to get into the habit of closing the bedroom door. Keep the cat out. If it looked like she was in an urgent way, sniffing here and there around the bathroom door and around our bedroom door, I put her outside. I couldn’t handle the thought of a kitty litter tray inside. It’s only a few years since we’d gotten away from children in nappies, surely the cat could look after her own needs? But no, the cat could not. And now I’d forgotten to shut the door and she had done five stinky logs and pissed on one of the overnight bags we also kept under the bed.

I ran down the hall, the bag dripping piss on the wooden boards as I went, opened the back door and threw the overnight bag outside. Then I grabbed the cat who was sitting in the morning sun contentedly cleaning her paws. I picked her up and put her blind elderly cat nose right up to her shit, which had rolled off the bag when I’d thrown it and lay on the concrete path just outside our door. The children watched with interest.

‘What’s that?’ the smallest said, pointing at the shit.

‘Cat shit,’ I said.

‘Don’t say shit, Mummy,’ said the eldest. The youngest tittered.

‘Sorry. It’s poo, it’s cat poo,’ I said.

‘Why is it on my bag?’ said the youngest.

‘It’s my bag too,’ said the eldest.

‘Stormy did it there,’ I said. ‘She…’ I wanted to explain why she did it on their overnight bag, but I couldn’t because I didn’t know why.

‘Ewww,’ said the youngest, and started to do some fake crying.

‘Please don’t make that noise,’ I said. I was, by this time, quite frustrated and couldn’t handle the fake-crying child. ‘I’m going to clean it up.’

The cat was outside now and I shut the door on her and locked her cat door so she couldn’t get back in. I cleaned up the mess, wrote a note to David telling him not, under any circumstance, to let the cat in. Then we left for the day, the kids and me. The cat was locked outside.

When I got home the cat was once again inside. David said it was too cold for her to be outside all day, she didn’t know what she was doing, she was an elderly cat, couldn’t we just take more care and shut the bedroom door? I looked for the rage I’d felt in the morning, found the residue and put the cat outside again. I could close the bedroom door, but the cat must pay.

Half an hour later, my pity for the old cat, and a slow growing shame at what I’d done crawled in and replaced my rage. I opened the door for her. She sat at the top of the hall facing down towards the bedroom. I made a noise deep in my throat and growled at her. She turned and walked away from me.

Part of my ‘punishment’ to the cat was to shame her—to put her face close up to her own shit, and to growl at her, and to make her sit outside the family home. I don’t know whether the cat was actually ashamed. In a way, her reaction is unimportant. What mattered, in the heat of the moment, was that my anger at her adding to my jobs to do before I left the house, my disgust at the shit and smell in my bedroom, and my dismay that she be doing this to us (yes to us, not to herself) after 13 years of care—all this needed to be answered. I wanted to shame the cat, but the consequence of my reaction meant I was feeling ashamed of myself.

The rational part of me knows that what I did to her, to punish her, is wrongheaded, with an edge of cruelty, and will not change her behavior. She is an old cat, she is blind, the outdoors probably frightens her—it’s cold and she can only feel her way around our garden. She knows our garden because she’s lived there most of her sighted life, but still. What I did to her I did because I was angry and wanted to take my anger out on her, to offload it, and my immediate reaction (aside from physical torment or torture, which even I won’t do) was to shame her.

My reaction was thoughtless, indeed, reactionary. I was acting out a learnt behavior, one that goes all the way back to my own childhood, to the ways in which I was punished for my own ‘naughty behaviour’. When I was small I was hit for ‘being naughty’; this was how children were punished back then. Punishment was physical and often involved the wooden spoon. The wooden spoon was broken against my tender backside a few times. There was something subversively wonderful if my butt managed to break the wooden handle. It hurt, but it was almost worth it to ruin the implement that hurt me so. I would then be ‘told off’ and asked to think about my actions. Did the person doing the hitting, my mother, feel ashamed as I did, after the cat shit incident; as I do after yelling with anger at my own children for things they do that displease me?

After being hit, I would be embarrassed, sometimes I would feel guilt for having done what I’d done; I would be ashamed. Clinical psychologist Gershen Kaufman wrote a book I’m reading in an attempt to understand what I’m doing, why it is I’m writing this down. Kaufman’s book is called The Psychology of Shame. He believes that feelings such as guilt and embarrassment arise out of shame. Kaufman argues that shame is the home base of many negative ‘affects’ such as guilt, self-consciousness, embarrassment, shyness, discouragement, a sense of failure and of inferiority. These are feelings in themselves, but they all arise out of and can be traced back to the base affect of shame. When I was hit with the wooden spoon the intention was perhaps to shame me, to make me feel that I would not repeat the ‘naughty behaviour’.

I disagree with physical punishment. I think that hitting children shows a lack of control, it does nothing to help the child understand why what they’ve done is wrong and why they shouldn’t do it and it makes a child fear the adult who is supposed to protect and love them. But shame is important in development. It is part of how we learn to control our behavior. Kaufman writes that, ‘Shame plays a vital role in the development of conscience. By alerting us to misconduct or wrong doing—to transgression in whatever form—shame motivates necessary self-correcting.’

Self-correction; isn’t that what we want our children to learn? And our cats? But there’s a point at which shame overwhelms the self, and becomes problematic.

I lied. I wrote that I discovered the cat shit after I went back into the bedroom to get my watch. This is a detail about which only David would know the truth, and even then, he probably wouldn’t notice. My watch will always be found in the shelf above the kitchen sink, where I place it carefully after I take it off to wash the dishes. Most nights I do the dishes because David does most of the cooking. If you cook you don’t have to wash up, that’s our rule.

My watch was my grandfather’s. My father gave it to me. It’s a ‘gold’ watch, a Certina automatic Club 2000, inscribed on the back: ‘Presented to H.E. McDougall 30 Yrs Service Caltex Oil (NZ) Limited.’ (Why was it necessary for them to inscribe ‘limited’? What kind of pedant inscribed that on this watch?) I know exactly where I put the watch. I’m careful with it.

The real reason I went back to the bedroom where upon I discovered the cat shit, was to spray some more hairspray in my hair. It was flat and greasy, and I hadn’t bothered to wash it and I was hopeful that some hairspray might mask the way it looked. I’d already sprayed it, but I wanted to spray it some more. There was no point to the hairspray as I was about to put on my bike helmet and ride for thirty sweaty minutes to work. But I did it anyway.

So why did I lie and say that I went back to the bedroom to get my watch?

Vanity. My own shame about vanity. Shame about the greasiness of my hair, as if the production of sebum in my scalp, the way it darkened the strands and made them lie flat against my head, said something of my own human weakness. A line in a Geoff Cochrane poem got seared into my brain when I first read it: ‘Odours of sebum and dust. The couch’s fabric had a bummy, sebaceous smell.’ My hair is oily, unwashed, bummy. By not washing it I show my own decay, I reveal my own base animal smell. I see my unwashed hair as ugly hair. God forbid I be seen as ugly. Ugly people with greasy hair should cover their heads and hide their faces—no one wants to see them.

This is why I lied about the watch and the hairspray. There is a façade I must keep up; a well-groomed elegance, an ironed shirt, clean hair, rimmed eyes, a hint of blush on the cheek, of red in the lip. I craft myself, as much as—no, more—than I attempt to craft my writing. Strangely, I would let writing slip before I’d ever let my appearance ‘go’. I can almost hear the woman who says, in a voice that sounds just like my mother, a hand held to the mouth, the tone lowered, ‘She’s really let herself go.’ Where? I want to ask. To where did she let her self go?

How vain I am. How deep my shame lives within me. How, despite my demands for honesty, my distain of fakery in other people and in things, my reading and learning, my almost forty years of living, I am wedded to artifice—to creating a wall to hide my shame behind. I am a cut and pasted work of fiction.

I should like to imagine that the candlelight of my real self is flickering in an underground cave, but this would be to suppose the self as an unchanging thing, a lump of wax slowly melting, a wick long enough to last a lifetime—but easy enough to snuff out given a stray air current, pinched fingers, a breath. While it burns it lights up the marks on the wall of the cave, made by the hands of early humans 27,000 years ago. Those spirit animals move and change in the flickering light—bison charge, elk leap on the walls.

It is hard to bring the real self into view—we turn to metaphor, to fiction, for such tasks—we are forced to use artifice and craft. How contradictory we are! Art to expose our fictive selves, metaphor to dig beyond that self in our attempts to find what is real.

If the core of the self is a small candle, to bring this out of the cave would be to diminish its light under the sun’s brilliant rays. It would be dangerous. It is best it stays out of the wind and rain, in the sheltered climate of the cave, no human breath to atrophy the paintings it lights, no breath to accidentally or purposely blow the flame out. I’m not content to leave it alone though. I pace the tunnel outside the cave.

The light in the kitchen is clear. The radio is playing a song from 1975. My mother always has the radio on. I know the words of most of the popular songs from the 1970s and 80s. It’s one thing I’m good at, remembering the words of pop songs. It’s an unrecognised form of genius. I won’t even know I know a song and then I’ll suddenly be singing along word perfect.

The light in the kitchen is clear and I am a pair of eyeballs looking back at the kitchen window from the top of the table. As a baby you don’t have a position so much as a very fixed point of view and until you can crawl (a manoeuver I never mastered) that point of view is the point of view that others allow you. I’m looking up at the kitchen window that runs the length of the kitchen counter. I’m not placed high enough to look out the window, but I’ve got a good view of the light, and even a baby can get a kick out of good light. My mother has placed me on the table in a bouncinette that is made of yellow crocheted netting and it gives when you wriggle your legs, and the whole contraption bounces. It’s cool-fun.

The radio is on and the kitchen door is open. If you poke your head out the open kitchen door you’ll see it leads down some concrete steps, along a narrow concrete path with some freshly laid grass seed to the sides of that path (so, lo and behold, don’t walk on the grass seed, stick to the narrow path). The path leads to our white letterbox and to the corner, around which my mother will tell you ‘trucks thunder.’ Thundering trucks are the stuff of nightmares for my mother because my sister, once she could, escaped on her hands and knees out that same back door, along the path and out onto the road on which trucks would thunder.

My mother is baking. Neenish tarts. She is a very good baker which is something you should be if you are a mother, a housewife in Newlands in 1975. She is blonde, she is twenty-four, she is from a farm in Rongotea, she is a trained secretary, she has married a man in advertising.

I asked her if she knew she would always leave the Manawatu, did she always know she would end up a town-girl? ‘I don’t know,’ she says and her eyes glaze over, unapproachable. I don’t know.

Her back is turned to me, the baby on the table in the middle of the kitchen, but I don’t mind because I can still see her, I can still look at the window and admire the clarity of light that comes through it.

Then I startle and wave my baby arms and maybe I fart or blow some spit out of my mouth because there are two people at the open door. They are smiling people, very smiley, and I smile back because I am a baby with a high point of view.

If I hadn’t been given this point of view would I remember this scene? Do I remember this scene or has it been told to me over and over so that I’ve made it a scene? The clear light, the unnamed pop song, the window, the profound position I’ve been given on the table. And now the smiling people who wave at me and say to my mother, ‘Excuse me, Madam, can we talk to you?’

My mother has not seen me startle and smile at the smiley strangers, but now she suddenly turns at the sounds of their voices, and she says, ‘Oh, I did not see you there,’ by which she means, ‘What are you doing in my kitchen? Get out of my kitchen, you are frightening me.’ But we do not say that we are frightened, because to say that would be to admit that we are frightened.

‘That is such a delightful baby,’ says the woman at the door and she steps over the threshold toward me and holds out her hand to touch my baby cheeks. A baby is a thing to touch and to speak of in the third person. That baby. Is such a. Thing.

The woman rubs the back of her finger against my cheek. I smile and kick my legs to bounce my bouncinette, how clever of me.

My mother wipes her hands on her pinny, instead of hitting the woman’s arm away from me. My mother says, ‘What do you want?’

The man, has stepped over the threshold now too and into our kitchen, and he smiles and says, ‘This is a lovely kitchen, very light.’

The house is new. It’s the only time in my life I have lived in a brand new house. In the land of the new. My father once told me he wanted to live in the southern suburbs, Island Bay by the sea, where a friend of his lived. But my mother didn’t want to. He told me this when I was living in Island Bay, as an adult. He said, ‘You know my friend who killed himself? Guy? He lived in Island Bay.’

Why did my mother want to live in Newlands? It’s so far from everything, except the motorway and the rubbish dump. Perhaps they could agree on it because it was new. Perhaps people who live there will never kill themselves.

The kitchen smells of my mother’s baking. It’s ten in the morning and it’s autumn. The man and the woman are moving in our kitchen now, moving around the table to admire the baby and the kitchen. They talk to my mother using words. I don’t really understand words yet, but I’m absorbing them especially if they’re in a pop song, in which case my brain is storing them in my pop song data files, which take up something like 32 gigabytes of space.

That sort of data file space is unimaginable back then. Back then data is stored on records, in the magical shape of a groove and when the needle is on the record, lo and behold, don’t jump or run because it will confuse the data and scratch the vinyl. Data is stored in words on pages in books. Lo and behold don’t be so rough with the pages or they’ll rip. The telephone book, the Edmonds, the Bible, the Hamlyn Family Medical Dictionary, Busy Town, Scamp the Dog, Snow Day at Blackberry Farm. Data is stored in a person’s head behind firewalls, so that nobody else can get at it and share that information with the government or with your parents or your friends or your lovers. Why would we want to share so much data anyway? Share and like. Am I telling you this so I can be shared and liked?

Yesterday David held up a tiny piece of plastic and said, ‘This has a whole movie on it.’ We marveled over this. His first new computer when he started to write film scores around fourteen years ago was 500 megabytes and then he got an external drive that was 1 gigabyte. This was indescribably enormous and exciting. Now you can fit a 16 gigabyte movie file onto a piece of plastic the size of my fingernail. I asked him if the movie used up all the space on the tiny plastic and he tried to explain that it wasn’t space so much as a string of 0s and 1s and the data is using up those 0s and 1s, like beads on an abacus being pushed up to count for something.

‘You can write over the 0s and 1s,’ David told me, ‘If you don’t mind losing your original data.’

He’s telling me this and I try to listen but all I can hear is the Flight of the Concords’ Robot Song when they start singing, ‘Zero zero zero zero zero zero one’ etc.

‘So is data like a box into which you can fit a finite number of shoes, and if you want to add any different shoes, you throw away the ones you don’t like anymore or have worn down so much they’re dog tucker, so you chuck them out and replace them with new shoes?’ I say.

‘Um?’ says David.

Zero zero zero zero zero zero one.

If I download the kitchen and the clear light and the man and the woman at the door, then moving over the threshold into the kitchen, will I be able to write over that space with something else? What would I want to replace it with? If I do replace it will I still be me? Am I the view of the light in the kitchen or the 0s and 1s storing the view of the light in the kitchen?

I kick my legs and bounce and the man walks behind me so I can’t see him anymore. My mother is right in front of me looking over me, across the table to the man. She has her hands on her hips now, making herself wider, like a chimp mother might. When the man behind me talks to my mother his voice is detached from his body, he’s a voice-over in a movie.

‘Do you have hole in your life?’ he says. ‘Do you think about God?’

The song on the radio has become louder. No, not louder, persistent, and because of that, all consuming. The radio has been on for years. The radio is a fly buzzing around the bedroom at nighttime. ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ, says the fly, and all you can focus on is the fly, every muscle fibre in your body strains towards the buzzing fly, so that the fly might not just be in your room, but in your brain, it might not just be the only sound you’ll ever hear again, it might also be the only thought you’ll have again. The radio is always on because without the constant buzzing of the radio we might hear ourselves think. Thoughts are doubts, thoughts are flying daggers – reach out and grab one, stab it in your gut.

On the radio we hear parts of our lives sung – the aching part of us played out in chords, words we can’t speak ourselves made into simple metaphors, similes and then resolved tidily in rhyme. In a pop song we are made into palatable fragments, fragments made sweeter, more attractive than in real life. The pop songs my mother favours – the Carpenters, ABBA, Barbara Straisand and Barry Gibb construct syrupy dream worlds.

‘So much of life ahead, we’ll find a place where there’s room to grow. Yes, we’ve only just begun.’

Karen Carpenter didn’t grow though, did she? She did the opposite. She shrank herself until her heart gave out.

Pop songs perform a double act of repression and release. If you have been left alone all day in a kitchen with a new baby in Newlands, a pop song might be a way to not go crazy, to not hear yourself think. Keep the lid on the boiling pot.

Strangers entered our house while the radio was on, and my mother did not hear them. Strangers who wanted to sell us God. We weren’t buying. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t afford it.

Three days ago I fell on my arse. I was gazing at the sky, just gazing around. It had stopped raining for the first time in about five days and I was just enjoying dreaming, trying to feel a bit of weak sun on my face. We were at the market and David was doing the vegie shopping and I was with the kids in the park. The kids grab boxes off the vegie sellers and then whizz down the wide metal slide in the boxes. They weren’t really whizzing today as it had been so wet the slide had a layer of dried mud on it, dust from other kids’ shoes. It had been raining for so many days, and as I sat and watched my kids, the other kids, the other parents, and the sky, I felt grateful for the reprieve from rain, pleased at our plans for the day – market, beach walk, yum cha for lunch. At the same time the reprieve had put me in a dreamy mood, as if I’d been asleep during the week of rain, and was newly woken, groggy with it.

I sat on a wall and watched the kids slide. There’s always interesting kid politics to be observed at the park – kids who haven’t done the box sliding and want to know where you get the box, kids who are too shy to ask, kids who hang around until another kid offers them a box. I looked up and saw David had finished and had come to meet us so I got off the wall I was sitting on and started to walk down the flattened black matting that covers the muddy hill, and then my feet went out from under me.

I let out a shriek, the sort of cry that sounds so girlish and hopeless, the sort of shriek I’ve been making all my life when something unexpected suddenly happens to me. There is something of a nineteenth century fainter about my shriek. Something of a girl who has climbed on a chair to get away from a mouse. It makes me feel pathetic but I do it everytime.

I had a handbag on my shoulder. A handbag? (An incredulous Lady Bracknell asks.) How ridiculous is that word? Adult women have them, handbags, so I don’t know what I’m doing with one. A handbag, it is not a word that can possibly have anything to do with me, but I do have this bag on my shoulder and as I go down I feel it fly up in a lumpy, indecorous way, and I’m aware that at this moment I am the opposite of a dancer.

When dancers fall do they look as inelegant as I do? Or do they look like they’re accidently doing a dance?

I’m falling through the air and shrieking and the kids and adults in the park turn to look towards the noise. And then I hit the ground with a full metal thud. My coccyx slams into the hard ground and the impact of the hit ricochets up my back and into my head as a shock wave, a bad vibration. A second later the pain explodes in the base of my spine, all attention in my body rushes to that area. I turn onto my side, to take the pressure off my back. That’s as far as I can move. The pain is starting to pulse and emit spasms. I look up to call for David, who seems to be moving very slowly and with some confusion, or is it me who is confused? My eldest son is walking towards me, slightly embarrassed by what I’ve done, or is it me that’s embarrassed by what I’ve done and he is simply coming to check his mother is okay? He can see I’m crying, and he doesn’t see that very often, so such a situation should be approached warily.

‘Get Dad,’ I say, showing him my pain because it’s too acute to hide it and also the whole time I’m feeling embarrassed I’m also feeling that I shouldn’t be, that it’s ridiculous and childish to be embarrassed by a fall and I should be modeling honesty in such a situation.

Tears are rolling down my face and a woman has come over to me and is pulling on my arm, asking me if I’m okay and I say, because I don’t want to move yet, ‘Don’t touch me, don’t touch me.’ In my mind, because now I’m also feeling pissed off that I fell and that we won’t be going for a beach walk or for yum cha, I add, ‘Are you crazy! Don’t you know not to move people after they’ve had an impact to their body? You really should do first aid training. Everyone should do first aid training.’ And then David is there, saying ‘It’s okay I’ll look after her.’

I’m crying, and it really hurts but I’m not just crying because it hurts, or for my loss of dignity, there’s something else going on too. From the moment my feet slipped out from under me to the moment of impact, time slowed down. It seems to me that there should have been a moment as I fell through space where I should have been able to stop myself from falling because it happened so slowly. There was nothing for me to grab onto, and because I was on a slope it was hard to right my feet once they’d gone out, but I should have been able to propel myself forward and upright, or at least use my hands to break my fall.

I dreamed of a plane, an old jet liner, a rattly, heavy steel thing hitting the sea belly-first. The plane didn’t break up on impact, but sat there for a few seconds and then it started to sink. It fell unevenly through the water, its weight tipping between its nose and its tail as it fell through the water until it thunked onto the sea-bed. Loose sand was flung up in a cloud so that the water around the plane became murky, seaweed was blown back or squashed, hermit crabs were pushed down into the sand beneath the planes body, every thing around this foreign object was displaced.

When my tailbone hit the ground I displaced something. Until then the water at the bottom of my spine had been still, slowly muddying over the years, like an old liquid science experiment in a glass beaker that is suddenly, violently stirred up. What life grows in there? So that when I was crying, I was not just crying because it hurt but because some unconscious, stored part of me was being aggressively stirred with a dirty spoon and put back on the Bunsen burner to see what would happen as it heated. It was the science experiment of a lazy kid, someone like me – let’s put this with that and shake it up and heat it and see what happens. The taste of boiled celery, the hot ring of itching around my neck whenever I wore the jerseys my Nana knitted, the guy I slept with when I was 22 whose name I can’t remember – this bleak liquid bubbling up and down the thin glass of my spinal column.