It’s that time of year…..OR the Good, the Bad and the unfortunate Ugly…of Christmas.

Merry Christmas every one.

Yes it’s time to bring out the hideous jerseys and grow weird things out of the top of your head.

Stop any child in the street and ask them what Christmas means to them…..and you’ll probably get arrested for attempted child abduction or molestation….it’s an unfortunate sign of the times. “Stranger Danger” has been drummed into kids these days, which means as a result, that we no longer have kids coming Christmas caroling door to door – as their parents are in constant fear of perverts grabbing them. If you were able to ask a child in the street – without their mother dragging them away while dialing the police on 911….111….or 999 depending on what part of the world you’re in – they would be more likely to reply either “Santa” or “Presents”, rather than “it’s a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ – the son of God, sent to earth to save mankind”.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly a one word answer is more likely from a child on the street, than an entire coherent sentence, particularly if it means that they have to look up and break their concentration from the video game they are playing on the latest iPhone….and secondly Christmas has been abducted by commercialism and the jolly fat man in a coca cola trademark coloured suit. A third reason, if we need one, would be that religion – at least the Christian religion – doesn’t seem to have the pull it used to have when we were all “God fearing”. The churches are all but empty these days except for weddings and funerals. BUT I’m not going to get into a long rant about religion and which one, if any, is right and which one is wrong…..because I don’t know the answer. If we’re honest no one does. We can claim to know…..but it’s actually a belief….not a known fact. That’s why they call it “Faith”. However, I’ll put the lid on that can of worms because it’s not what I’m here to talk about.

I remember the magic of Christmas as a child. Christmas eve was the only evening of the year that my parents could get me and my brother to go to bed early…..in the sure and certain knowledge that Santa would be coming, and the sooner we were asleep the sooner he could come and leave us oodles of gifts. We didn’t have “stockings hung with care” on the fireplace. Oh no, not me and my brother. We’d sussed out that you could get a lot more presents in a pillowcase than you could in a miserly stocking. So, we’d lay out a clean pillowslip at the foot of our beds and cover our heads with the blankets with the intention of staying awake to catch Santa in the act. Pretending to be asleep, snug and warm under the blankets, soon gave way to actually falling asleep and that was that… until morning…..usually very early morning – 6am even.

Which ever one of us awoke first we’d whisper very, very loudly to the other “Has he been yet?” And one of us would scurry to the foot of the bed, look over the edge and seeing the stuffed to overflowing pillowcases gorged with colourfully wrapped presents would confirm “He’s been….He’s been!!!”

We’d immediately leap up, grab our stuffed pillowcases and drag them into mum and dad’s room. One pillowcase left at dad’s side of the bed, one at mum’s side and me and my brother would jump up onto the bed and snuggle down in the warm gap between the two of them – excited and fidgety and eager to start opening presents. BUT, just to stretch the agony of waiting, either mum or dad…..usually mum….would get up and make a cup of tea first. Can’t have presents being opened without a cup of tea for sustenance, can we? It’s the British way!

And then FINALLY the gifts would be brought out one at a time…..one from the pillowcase on mum’s side…followed by one from the one on dad’s side, so we could all watch each gift being unwrapped and OOhed and Aahed over…..or more likely see the look of anticipation and expectation turn to the look of disappointment and dismay. It’s not that me and my brother were ungrateful little shits, it was more because mum and dad used to buy us “nearly gifts” – as in not what we actually asked for but nearly the same – similar but not – close but no cigar. Usually the decision to get the “nearly” gifts was made based on cost. There was never a lot of money in our house when we were kids, but we were well fed and cared for. So rather than buying the popular brand, they’d go for a cheaper knock off – made in China – gift that was meant to be similar but didn’t usually come close. This was back when “made in China” meant cheap and crappy – now EVERYTHING is made in China. Then there would follow the arguments….or should I say animated discussions…. about why this particular gift is “So much better” than what we’d actually asked Santa for. And whilst demonstrating how much better this toy was….a bit would drop off and so it would be consigned straight to the rubbish bin. An example of a nearly gift would be “Lego” building bricks – that we had asked for and didn’t get – and the “Chad Valley build a home set” that we did get, with flimsy plastic panels and plastic beams with little lugs to affix the panels to….which would snap or split the first time you touched them. OR the time my brother asked for an Action Man toy – a soldier….the doll for boys lol. BUT got some cheap Chinese copy with a squashed head and a leg that kept falling off.  OR, sometimes they would actually surprise us and really push out the boat by buying a top brand item…well made….lasts for ever….expensive even. BUT again not quite what we’d asked for. My bike was an example. All the kids on our street had “scrambler” type bikes with big 20 or 24 inch wheels and cow horn shaped handlebars that made them look like speedway bikes – they were so masculine they almost reeked of testosterone – and we’d race around a dirt track in the edge of the local woods on them until we were sweaty and covered in mud. What did I get? Well….the brand was Raleigh – a top brand and very well made, BUT it was a commuter type bike with tiny 14 inch wheels with white tyres (I mean WHITE! Who ever invented white tyres needs to be shot. They’re only ever clean looking before you ride the bike. After that they are forever dirty.), and a carry-rack on the back complete with a white shoe box size and shaped saddle bag, with a delicate little strap and buckle on it, to match the white of the tyres, seat and hand grips. Oh JOY! It looked very feminine! It screamed “Sissy on a bike – please beat me up!” It was orange which was all that differentiated it from the bike that a girl up the street had….hers was purple, but otherwise identical in every way. I was shocked, embarrassed and depressed – rather than elated and excited – what mum and dad were hoping for – and then dad tried to sell the idea of this new bike to me by saying “If you notice just here….the columns for the handlebars and the seat extend, so it’ll last you for ever, no matter how much you grow.” It really added to the whole experience.

But a bike, sissy or not, is still a bike. I’d take the bike on long rides well away from the village, in the hope that no one would see me on it. The only good thing good about that bloody bike was that it had a battery powered siren – rather like the sound of a police car – instead of a bell. This was just an added torture though, because even though I wanted to sound the siren – because it sounded soooo cool – I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that I was riding a girls bike! It was purgatory! And it wasn’t only confined to toys…it was the same with clothes. Winter in Britain is bloody cold and I’d asked for a duffle coat which for boys came in one colour – just like the original Ford motor cars – you could have any colour as long as it was black. So I was expecting a black coat with a tartan interior to the hood and plain wooden toggles as buttons. What did they get me? Exactly the same coat as a girl in my class at school was already wearing….kind of a blue and black herringbone pattern. It wasn’t that it was a bad coat….just that if a girl already has one….it’s a girls coat!

Enough of my reminiscing….and wallowing in self pity. I learned from the feeling of discomfort and disappointment suffered as a child….. and therefore inflicted the same on my own kids! No I didn’t….at least I hope I didn’t. I hope that we bought them…or I should say…I hope that Santa BROUGHT them what they asked for rather than us being “Nearly” parents. I must say, when you have kids of your own, Christmas retains that magical feeling. The excited anticipation of Santa’s arrival rubs off on us adults too and we actually….through our children….enjoy Christmas and all it’s crass commercialism. When my young sons went off to bed straight after dinner on Christmas eve to get to sleep early……I’d hide outside their bedroom windows and ring little bells…..pretending to be the bells on the reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh. It kept them awake for hours and meant that they’d be so exhausted in the morning that me and the wife would be able to sleep in for an extra hour or two.

These days though, our children have grown up and flown the nest and since there are no grand children (yet) to pamper, Christmas has sort of lost it’s magic. What I do enjoy most about it these days, is the simple act of gathering family and friends around the table for Christmas lunch. Togetherness….AND being that we live in New Zealand, in the southern hemisphere, which means that Christmas falls in the middle of summer…..we’ll be gathered around the dining table outdoors, in the garden, in the sunshine, in shorts and t-shirts…..table laden with food and drinking a nice cold beer.

However, having been born in the UK and having first experienced cold snowy Christmases, it feels alien to me to have Christmas in summer, which is why – even though Christmas day always falls on December 25th – it always seems to sneak up on me, catch me unaware and unprepared so my Christmas cards always miss the last mail for the year….always arrive in the northern hemisphere to friends and family there…late! AND having only mailed them yesterday I have inadvertently kept up this unwanted tradition – they will be late yet again.

New Zealand Christmas lunch in the garden.

I wish you…..and all in the WordPress family of bloggers, writers and readers, a very merry Christmas and a healthy, happy and prosperous (as opposed to preposterous), New Year.

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The death of the letter…..

Is it just a sign of the times, is it progress, or is it a tragedy?

New Zealand Post Mailboxes…..disappearing from a town near you!

What am I talking about? I’m talking about the closure and subsequent franchising of the Post Office – more specifically of NZ Post Shops here in New Zealand….which in a way could lead to the ultimate death of the hand written letter.

Back in 1880 New Zealand had 850 post offices dotted around the country, serving the needs of the community. The population of NZ at that time was less than half a million people. At its peak there were 880 post offices. Now however, in 2018 and with a total population of a tick under 5 million, NZ Post are in the process of closing down their final 79, stand alone, post offices – and turning what’s left of the business over to the likes of pharmacies and supermarkets to run – as a franchise operation along side their existing business functions. The Post Office began life as a public service, but these days of commercialism and profit and loss – not to mention shareholders waiting for their dividends – it’s all about the money. And if the money isn’t rolling in, the service has to go…..sold to the highest bidder! No matter how incompetently it will be run, even if it brings about it’s eventual destruction.

I know that we have to move with the times – I’m not a Luddite – but I question how well the service will be run by supermarkets in particular when it comes to sending a letter or parcel to some obscure overseas destination. I see delays at the counter and delays in the service.  Already, home postal deliveries are reduced to only certain days of the week. Post boxes, on street corners, to mail your letters have been slowly and silently disappearing over the years (1300 have disappeared since 2008), in an obvious wind down of the postal service as a whole.

Part of the problem is that people don’t write letters these days, nor do they send as many greetings cards as they used to…..thanks to e-mail’s and e-cards. I am as much to blame – or possibly more to blame than most. More to blame? – you ask.  Let me explain my reasoning for saying this.

Back in pre-internet days I was a prolific letter writer. I had pen-pals all over the world – 52 of them in 48 different countries, on every continent except Antarctica. Some would only write a few times each year, but with others, letters would travel back and forth across continents with eager regularity. As I have mentioned in a number of my posts, one of my passions is travel, and letters to pen-pals was a wonderful way to make not just contacts, but friends around the world and to learn about other countries, about other ways of life, other customs. I believe that if we all had a friend in every country and knew of their lives and customs we’d be less likely to allow our leaders to declare war, or put in place economic sanctions – just to win a political point. When you strip everything back, we are all human beings, regardless of colour, religion, customs and politics.

This was in the mid 1980’s though, and sadly I have lost touch with most of them since then, partly because I moved from the UK to New Zealand almost 30 years ago. BUT these days, even those I do still keep in touch with, that communication is done by electronic means – the internet and e-mails , or via social media.

My wife and I met thanks to letters. We were pen-friends from opposite sides of the world – me in the UK and she in New Zealand. We started writing to one another over 33 years ago, met 32 years ago and have been together ever since – the last 30 of those years as husband and wife. More important for me than getting a book published – my letters brought me my greatest possible literary prize – my wife.  So for me particularly, the decline and slow and inevitable death of the Post Office and therefore the written letter, is a personal, sad event. 

Did anyone else meet their significant other via the magic of the hand written letter?

Paris has it all….part 2

On my Euro-Trip I had tried many times to visit photography galleries or exhibitions featuring photography or photographers, but each time my good intentions were thwarted for one reason or another. Sometimes I arrived in a city on a day that the gallery didn’t open, or one exhibition had just finished and they were taking it down in readiness for the next, or it was reserved for a private showing, or the gallery had closed permanently, or it had moved to other premises…….and the other premises, even when armed with Google maps were impossible to locate.

It was a pleasant surprise then, during my week in Paris to view several exhibitions of photography and photographs. I almost went into shock!

The first gallery we visited was “A Gallery” as in Gallery “A”.
A. Gallery on Rue Léonce Reynaud, 4 – is a small gallery on the ground floor. Located in the 16th arrondissement, close to Pont de l’Alma, between the Palais de Tokyo and the Fondation Yves Saint-Laurent – no fee to look around. At the time there was an exhibition titled Best of the West featuring several top photographers. Photo portraits were of the likes of Mike Tyson, Barak Obama, Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, David Bowie etc. Quality detailed large format prints – very nicely displayed. The guy in charge of the gallery barely looked up when we walked in – he’d obviously realised with a mere glance at us that we were not there to buy, only to look.

Another gallery – Gallery Les Douches – is on a back street at 5 Rue Legouvé. When we arrived, the door was locked, but press the buzzer and they let you in. The gallery is on the first floor – no lift,  so no use for wheelchairs. Again it was free of charge and featured photos by two women photographers – Vivian Maier and Berenice Abbott.

Unlike at Gallery A, the staff here were very welcoming and issued us with brochures of the photographs on display and pointed us in the right direction. As well as the photos on the walls, there were also tables with photography books and we were invited to sit and peruse the books for as long as we liked.

I had not heard of Abbott before – she got her start in photography as a dark room assistant to Man Ray.
Man Ray wanted someone who had never been involved in photography before, so he could mould them to his way of doing things. She learned how he set up his photo shoots and went on from there to be a photographer in her own right……and a good one at that. After learning from Man Ray, she set up her own studio in Paris before re-locating to New York, which is where she came into her own as a photographer. Most of her more iconic photos were taken in the period between the two world wars. 

Abbott’s Manhattan Skyline – March 1936

Vivian Maier’s story is both amazing and sad at the same time. I have already mentioned her in an earlier post I wrote about women photographers. She was an unknown in the photographic world almost until her death. During her life she would come to amass a group of storage lockers stuffed to the brim with found items, art books, newspaper clippings, home films, as well as over 30,000 negatives and 3,000 prints and a huge quantity of undeveloped, exposed film. Due to non-payment of rent on her storage lockers, her property was forfeit and auctioned off.

Most of which was purchased – as an unknown item – by one John Maloof for the princely sum of US$400 at auction in Chicago in 2007.

Thankfully Maloof, a history and photography buff, went to great lengths (and personal expense)  to get Maier’s images out into the world.

At this time Vivian was still alive but almost destitute – bouncing from homelessness to a small studio apartment paid for by a family that she once worked for. In 2008 she slipped on a patch of ice and sustained a head injury. Although expected to recover she died in a nursing home in April 2009. She had no family.

I had already seen the documentary film – finding Vivian Maier and purchased one of the books of her photographs so I knew quite a lot about her. Her speciality was documentary / street photography. She worked as a nanny and would take the children in her care on field trips around the city and photograph anything that took her fancy. By accident almost she ended up documenting, in her photographs, over 40 years of american history. And yes….I am a fan.

The final photography gallery we visited was Maison Europeenne de la Photographie, Ville de Paris at 5/7 Rue de Fourcy, 75004 Paris. For the first time on this trip we had to queue (40 minutes) to get into a photo gallery……and pay 8 euros to get in.

But there were exhibits by 7 different photographers over several floors of the building…..the star of which was Herb Ritts.

Ritts was a friend of Richard Gere before either of them became famous. He took photos of Gere which later gave him a foot in the door of the world of photographing celebrities. In the 80’s and 90’s he took photos of many celebrities and also took a series of fashion and nude photographs of fashion models Naomi Campbell, Stephanie Seymour, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington, and Cindy Crawford. He worked mainly in black and white and made some iconic images. Sadly on December 26, 2002, Ritts died of complications from pneumonia at the age of 50. 

So after having not much luck at finding photo galleries on the rest of this trip I almost overdose on them here in Paris. Wonderful!

Wardini’s Book Sellers – One step beyond.

Everyone has a favourite book shop, one that stands out from the rest. For me, my local favourite is Wardini’s of Havelock North, New Zealand, because they always go out of their way to make you feel welcome as soon as you walk into their shop.

Wardini Books, Havelock North

 

Run by Louise and Gareth Ward and a small army of staff, the independent book shop –  Wardini Books – is a literary oasis. From the cheery “Hello….can I help you find a particular book?”, to the lay out of the shop, to the friendly and knowledgeable staff, to the comfortable chairs to park yourself to read a few pages of a book you think you may want to buy. It’s a lovely shop with quality books. There are helpful notes attached to the front of a number of books on the shelves with reviews by Louise and the staff – all of them prolific readers. I think it’s really important that the people selling you the books know about the books that they sell.

Add to this the events that they run, or get involved in, both here at their first shop in Havelock North village and also in the next town Napier at their other shop, on Hastings Street – Book expo’s, book signings, poetry readings, staff reading to groups of children, book clubs, book quizzes….you name it. If it’s to do with promoting books Wardini’s staff are out there doing it.

Gareth and Louise organise a yearly book club quiz, held in the local community centre. I was lucky enough to be asked to fill in as a quiz team member when one of the members of my sister-in-law’s book club couldn’t make it on the night. I amazed myself at being able to answer a few of the questions, being a newcommer (it wasn’t easy), and thoroughly enjoyed the evening. Our team of 9 ladies plus me – the lone male – managed to lead all the way through the various rounds of questions, only to collapse in the last two rounds to finish 4th of about 25 teams. 

I won a raffle prize, which made up for the loss. When I say prize, it was actually prizes, as I received 3 bottles of Te Mata Estate Chardonnay – which was particularly delicious, and a book “Boundaries” by New Zealand writer and poet Brian Turner. The book is about the people and places of Central Otago – a wild, rugged and beautifully scenic part of New Zealand’s South Island. The writing is entertaining and informative and interspersed with beautiful colour photos along with poems dropped in here and there. The book alone would have been a wonderful prize, but having wine to drink whilst reading it makes it even better.

Books and wine – what a great combination.

Not satisfied with just selling books,  Gareth has also written his own best seller aimed at the young adult reader market – with a steampunk background – called “The Traitor and the Thief” – the hero of the piece is a resourceful 14 year old called Sin. It’s rated very highly by Goodreads scoring around the four and a half out of a possible five – so well done Gareth!  There is to be a sequel released around August 2019 – all being well.

As if that is not enough involvement with the community at large, Gareth is also known as “The Great Wardini” – magician, hypnotist, mentalist and childrens entertainer. He’s been doing this for the last five years and his website can be reached here – http://www.thegreatwardini.co.nz/

There are lots of really good indie book shops all around the world. What’s your favourite?

They need our support and our custom if they are to keep providing the service to the community that they have been doing – long before the advent of the internet and the dreaded Amazon.com. Please help to keep our bricks and mortar bookshops alive and kicking. Go buy a book!

William S Burroughs – beat writer, junkie, revolutionary, philosopher.

The heading above (almost) tells it all. Some would claim that Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg were the better known of the Beat Writers, but Burroughs was for me a more fascinating person. He outlived both Kerouac – who died young, only 47 years old, in 1969 and Ginsberg who died in April of 1997….Burrows passing on four months later in August of the same year.

Left to right – Hal Chase, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg & Burroughs in New York 1944

He was indeed all the things listed in the heading. A Beat Writer who was hooked on drugs, who had revolutionary ideas but also, as reflected in a number of quotes attributed to him, he was very philosophical in his outlook on life. In addition to all these things, he was also a killer. He shot his wife in 1951 while under the influence of drink and drugs. Someone, either himself or his wife Joan Vollmer (who incidentally was also a writer of the Beat Generation), suggested a game of “William Tell”. You know the story, William Tell shoots an arrow to knock an apple off his sons head? William S Burrows used a gun to shoot an apple off Joans head….but his aim was a little suspect even when sober, and Joan ended up stone cold dead. 

Burroughs loved to shoot guns…despite his experience of accidentally shooting his wife.

He admitted to the crime, received a 2 year suspended sentense for manslaughter and returned to his life as a trend setting writer. He wrote eighteen novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays. In addition to this, five books have been written from interviews he gave. He also collaborated on recordings made by a number of musicians and performers. Yes he was a Beat Writer, but his work over the years crossed boundaries into many types of popular culture.

Patty Smith and Burroughs.

Singer/musician/poet Patty Smith is attributed to once naming him “Godfather of Punk”. Something Burroughs later denied – saying he had no link to the punk movement at all. But it stuck.

It’s not as though Burroughs was an uneducated, down on his luck junkie. He was a Harvard educated English student, later doing post-grad studies in anthropology and later still attended Med School in Vienna. He came from money….his family were wealthy. He was born with a silverspoon in his mouth….and later a silver spoon in his nose – experimenting with various drugs.

He applied to join the military in 1942, was turned down and this is when he started to experiment with drugs, meeting up with Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1943.

Although he had written a manuscript earlier with Kerouac called “And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks”, his first published novel was “Junkie” in 1953, subtitled “Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict”. Although it was a novel it was also semi autobiographical account of his life as a drug user and a drug dealer. His most famous (or is it infamous?) book however was published in 1959 – “Naked Lunch” was a very controversial book which was subject to a court case as it was claimed to be in violation of the U.S. Sodomy laws.

That was a trade mark of the Beat Writers – they were out to shock the public. (Ginsberg did it with his outragious poem “Howl”, which featured both hetrosexual and homosexual sex – again falling foul of the lawmakers. The court case for this was in 1957).

Burroughs was most famous as a leader of the Beat Writers. He was lauded by many famous people including Norman Mailer who said he was – “the only American Writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius”. Kerouac called him “the greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift”. But, he dabbled in many areas of the Arts. He was a writer, film maker, performance artist and a painter/drawer. His drawings and paintings didn’t see the light of day until 1987 and he exhibited them for the next decade.

He was one of the first writers to publish a book of cut-up text. A manuscript would be written as normal and then pages cut in two lengthways. One of the two pieces could be moved up or down a few lines and taped together again creating a whole new manuscript. Other ways of producing cut-up text was to just move certain words or phrases into another part of the manuscript. Sometimes the result was nonsensical, sometimes it was meaningful – either way it was lauded as a breakthrough in writing. I guess it’s a little like the avant-garde art works of the time.

Later in life Burroughs kept cats for companionship and held them in high regard. Some of his quotes reflect this. “My relationship with my cats has saved me from a deadly, pervasive ignorance”.  And “A cat’s rage is beautiful, burning with pure cat flame, all its hair standing up and crackling blue sparks, eyes blazing an sputtering.”

On the system and government control – “Most of the trouble in this world has been caused by folks who can’t mind their own business, because they have no business of their own to mind”. And “How I hate those who are dedicated to producing conformity”. And finally  “Smash the control images. Smash the control machine”. And on gun control “After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from people who didn’t do it. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military”.

As for his quotes on drugs – he’s quite direct on how he views drugs and users/addicts. “Junk (drugs) is the ideal product….the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy.”  ” An addict never stops growing….stupider”. “I’m getting so Far Out one day I won’t come back at all”.

And a couple of quotes to finish off…..reflects the way that Burroughs and the “beats” lived their lives…..”Nothing is true…..everything is permitted”. “The only possible ethic is to do what one wants to do”.

I borrowed this from Cadie’s Corner. Looked like fun to try….and I’ve added a couple of questions to it. http://cadiescorner.blog/2018/11/08/a-to-z-bookish-tag/

  1. Author you’ve read the most books from: Ever? It would probably be a pretty even split between Stephen King and Dean Koontz, although I haven’t read either of them this year at all. Or in childhood it would be Enid Blyton – no doubt about it.
  2. Best Sequel Ever: I don’t really read a lot of books in series so was going to pass on this one, but John Marsdens Young Adult series which starts with “Tomorrow when the War Began”  is a great series of books for action and adventure – all 7 books in the series are worth a read.
  3. Currently Reading: Jorge Carrion “Bookshops”, George Orwell “Coming up for Air” and Margaret Atwood “On Writers and Writing”
  4. Drink of Choice While Reading: Coffee, or a nice fruity red wine.
  5. E-reader or Physical Book: Physical book every time, even when travelling. Buy a real book and keep the book shops viable…PLEASE!
  6. Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated In High School: Knowing my luck it would probably be Stephen King’s “Carrie”.
  7. Glad You Gave This Book A Chance: “Tuesdays with Morrie” – Mitch Albom. – a random book choice from a second hand store and not something I would usually read. Glad I did.
  8. Hidden Gem Book: One recommended to me by the owner of Loco Coffee and Books – shop in Featherston NZ – John Baxter’s “A Pound of Paper”. It’s an autobiographical account of how Baxter first got into writing, book dealing and book collecting – his life and loves from his childhood in Australia to working in the UK, USA and finally settling in Paris, France. It combines so many of my own interests I found it hard to put down. He is a very easy writer to read.
  9. Important Moment in your Reading Life: As a child, being introduced to Enid Blyton books for the first time, by a couple of friends. I’ve been an avid reader ever since.
  10. Just Finished: John Baxter’s – “The most beautiful walk in the world”. About walking around Paris following the steps of “Literary Giants” of the past. Paris is, and always has been, a hive of literary creativity.
  11. Kinds of Books You Won’t Read: Romance in general, Historical Romance in particular.
  12. Longest Book You’ve Read: Not sure… Stephen King’s – Beneath the Dome was long-ish. A non-fiction work probably was longer…”Livestock and complete Stock Doctor, A Cyclopedia” – was pretty heavy going and took several attempts to get through. Given to me by my wife’s grandfather and well over a hundred years old.
  13. Major book hangover: If this means it gave me a headache? Dean Koontz’s “Dark Rivers of the Heart” totally exhausted me by the end. A good book, but emotionally and physically draining I found.
  14. Number of Bookcases You Own: 7, Plus several T chests and boxes in my shed full of books. (I need more book cases let’s face it…)
  15. One Book You Have Read Multiple Times: I’m constantly flicking through the Shakespeare and Company book mentioned below in question 20.
  16. Preferred Place To Read: Usually the couch….or in bed. But if its for research, in my “Lazy-boy” chair in my office.
  17. Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you’ve read: “Forever is composed of Nows”. (Sylvia Whitman).
  18. Reading Regret: Reading Stephen King’s “Insomnia” – (it cured mine). Zzzzzz
  19. Series You Started And Need To Finish (all books are out in series): A 3 Volume set of the works of Byron – “Finden’s Illustrations to Lord Byron’s Life and Works”.
  20. Three of your All-Time Favorite Books: “A Pound of Paper” – John Baxter, “Notes from a Small Island” – Bill Bryson, and a book about George Whitman’s Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris called “Shakespeare and Company – a History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart”. – a lovely book of words and photos about the life and times of an amazing book shop and the eccentric man who made it all happen.
  21. Unapologetic Fan-girl/boy For: John Baxter’s literary/travelogue books especially about his life in Paris.
  22. Very Excited For This Release More Than All The Others: The next John Baxter book.
  23. Worst Bookish Habit: Buying more books than I can possibly read.
  24. X Marks The Spot: Start at the top left of your shelf and pick the 27th book: Jefferson Parker – “The Blue Hour” – haven’t read it yet.
  25. Your latest book purchase: “Passages” by Linda Trubridge – a local writer. (Bought yesterday at a book signing).
  26. ZZZ-snatcher book (last book that kept you up WAY late): Leonard Pitt’s – “My Brain on Fire”. It’s about Pitt’s early life – visiting Paris as a wanna-be writer – life and loves…..successes and disasters. Just had to get it finished.
  27. Favourite Genre: I have a few…Travelogues or books about writers and writing would probably be my most favourite.
  28. Most over-rated writer (in your opinion): For me it would be a toss up between Hemingway and Kerouac – two writers who’s style of writing annoy the crap out of me.
  29. Favourite “Classic” read: Probably Jules Verne – Around the world in Eighty Days – as I love books about travel and adventure.
  30. Favourite bookshop visited, so far: Shakespeare & Company, Paris – a magical place in an awesome setting on the bank of the Seine.

The difference between Cats and Dogs….and why cats make better bookmarks.

Are you a dog person, or a cat person?

I have always considered myself a dog person, having owned a pet dog of one sort or another since I was a little boy and actually looked upon “cat people” with scorn almost to the point of ridicule. Why would anyone want a cat rather than a dog for goodness sake?

That was then…..this is now. I’ve jumped ships. I’m now very much in the cat camp.

Looking back all my dogs – Lassie (how original right?) the mixed breed black dog with tan markings was my first and was a lovely natured, loyal, obedient, lively dog and a great companion for two young boys (me and my brother) growing up. Her life was taken too soon on a busy road by a car in a hurry – or a driver of a car in a hurry.

Next came Bess – a Welsh Springer-Spaniel – liver and white in colour. Another wonderful dog, and quite intelligent for a spaniel… (she learned to “heel” very quickly and so could be walked almost anywhere off the leash and would stay by my side). I used to walk her for miles through the woodland near our home in Yorkshire – treasured memories. She had a great temperament, so gentle – (we had a budgerigar in a cage in the house – One day it got out and the dog caught it. She just held it ever so softly in her mouth and presented it to me completely unharmed – except for a coating of doggy saliva that is).

Then, after moving to New Zealand and having two small sons of our own…..we thought a dog would be a good companion for them too. So we bought a black and white Springer/Cocker Spaniel cross from our neighbour. He (our first and only male dog) was playful and very friendly – a little over exuberant maybe – even to the point of annoyance – but also…..I don’t really want to use this word, but honestly I have trained other dogs with ease – this one just wouldn’t learn…..he was STUPID. (This is where Forest Gump pops up in my head and says “stupid is as stupid does….that’s what my momma used to say”). I’ve heard some experts say that there are no stupid dogs, only stupid owners……that may be true in 99% of cases ,where the dogs may have had a learning capacity greater than that of a Turnip, but our dog was definitely a few sandwiches short of a picnic. Which is why we named him Baldrick – after the character from the Black Adder TV series.

Finally we come to our last dog, Millie a Jack-Russel Terrier with the typical brown on white markings. She was the runt of the litter, only half the size of her siblings and so my wife took pity on her and, despite my insistence that we were n’t having any more pets, she was soon sleeping in a shoe box, (that’s how tiny she was – I could hold her in the palm of my hand) by the side of our bed. Another lovely, well trained dog with a friendly manner – except she didn’t like very small children – as a result of being poked around by a couple of little ones when she was a pup (no, not our kids). The problem with runts of the litter is that they are not generally expected, in nature, to live to adulthood. Millie did however, but not without a whole raft of medical problems that cost us into the thousands of dollars to combat. She was 12 years old when she died – 74 in dog years according to the latest way of calculating dogs years Vs humans. (15 dog years for the first human year, 9 dog years for the 2nd year and 5 dog years for every human year afterwards – it used to be 7 dog years for 1 human year….things change – must be inflation).

After her death – which was extremely upsetting for us all, we both agreed – No More Pets!

We went away on holiday (that’s the same as a vacation – for our cousins from the former colonies) – leaving our home in the capable hands of my wife’s brother and his son who would house sit for us and keep things ticking over while we were away. On our return I found, much to my dismay that our home was now “open house” for 2 very young kittens who had come through the fence from next door and had had the run of the house almost from day one of our holiday.

“Right” I said “Not having this….we are a cat free house!” – What a grumpy bugger!

I then set about putting barriers across the back doorway too high for the kittens to clamber over. This of course worked for a couple of weeks until they learned how to jump…..something that animals of the feline persuasion do extremely well. In the end I softened my attitude and allowed them back in…for a while….and would then pop them back through the fence to go home. The two kittens, one male and one female -(we didn’t know what names the neighbours had given them so…) – my wife named them Scarlette and Tiberius. Well, Scarlette, as a name, I could handle…..but Tiberius? To me, he became Tibbs or Tibby and as an ardent Dog man, I hate to admit how fond I became of him. He quickly became MY cat….my wife would claim OUR cat….but he was definitely mine – Shhhh don’t tell her.

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Scarlett on the left and Tibbs on the right. 

From being a 3 month old he pretty much took up permanent residence at our place, (we’d been buying food for them both for some time already), though his sister would go back and forth from us to the neighbours. Tibbs would come when called in at night and slept inside – where ever he wanted to. In the mornings he’d come into the bedroom and jump on to the bed and nuzzle me, purring like a motor boat – as if to say ‘Good morning…great to see you!’, before settling down to sleep on my chest. He had a routine. After breakfast he’d go off exploring for a couple of hours before coming home again to check on me, to have a cuddle and some more food before finding a nice sunny spot to settle in the garden…..sometimes joined by Scarlette. They were really good mates together.

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Tibbs using Scarlette as a cushion. 

As I said Tibbs never went far and always came home every few hours, so one day when he’d been missing all day, and didn’t come when I called him in, in the evening – naturally we were worried. Fortunately the next day he turned up, bloodied but otherwise ok. He’d obviously been in a fight, bits of missing fur and tooth marks in his skin attesting to that. After that night, he stayed close to home for a few weeks.

Then after he’d been living with us for about 9 months….it was the 4th January 2017 and we had a houseful of family staying over Christmas and New Year….he went out into the garden about 10pm and that was the last we saw of him. My wife was very upset and I, someone who over the years had often said “I can’t stand cats!” – was devastated. It was crazy. I’d had pets die before…dogs…budgies…goldfish, even chickens, and had been upset, but this was gut wrenching. I was beside myself. I think it was the not knowing what had happened to him that was the worst. Was he alive being looked after by another family, or trapped in a shed somewhere, was he dead….if so had he suffered?

A few weeks prior to his disappearance, Scarlette had given birth to her first litter of kittens. 3 little bundles of fluff. We’d not seen them, but we’d been told by the neighbours about them. The day after Tibbs disappeared, Scarlette came visiting and brought with her the cutest, prettiest looking kitten ever. Now bear in mind that this is someone who “doesn’t like cats” who’s writing this….so the kitten MUST have been extremely cute.

My wife…as she does….named him – yes the new kitten is a him – Hector. And, like his uncle Tibby, Hector  – once he’d weaned off his mother, kind of settled in with us. He’d go for a wander next door to check on his bro’s, but would usually be back in a few minutes.  Other days he’d stay at the neighbours overnight, but mostly spent his time at our house. The youngest boy who lived next door used to come around and collect Hector…who they called Hemi….and take him home to their place. Half an hour later Hector was back with us. Time passed Hector grew and Scarlette had another litter of kittens and so Hector went down the order of cuteness as far as the kids next door were concerned. The new kittens took priority and Hector was no longer wanted.

Long story….already pretty long…but, long story short we had a chat with the neighbours and officially adopted Hector/Hemi to be OUR cat. We took him to the vets, got him “fixed”…..sorry Hector – I feel your anguish and your…loss. AND now I’m going to have to sit with my legs crossed for the next hour wincing in sympathy, just at the thought of it. We bought him a nice collar with name tag and phone number on ….. that’s our phone number not his…..I mean, we spoil the cat with treats but didn’t go as far as giving him his own phone. He settled back in with us despite having him go under the vets knife and except for his tendency to test our love for him……I’ll explain shortly…..everything was going very nicely.

We live on a very busy main road – to the front of the house – with orchards and fields to the back of the house. Scarlette seems to have done a good mothering job in teaching her offspring about keeping off that main road and heading the other direction into the orchard instead. At night I close our big double gates to make the gardens secure for the night…..this, if I am not careful, is where Hector tests our love for him. If he sees me walking down the driveway toward the gate he’ll lay in wait until I have closed one side of the gate and will then run hell for leather out of the open side and lay on the footpath inches away from the busy road and traffic. He’ll lay there and and turn to look at my frantic face as if to say “Well….aren’t you going to rescue me?”.  A couple of times I have walked slowly over, bent down and picked him up….bringing him back on to our property and safety….and telling him not to scare me like that ever again.

Obviously almost giving me a heart attack wasn’t enough for dear old Hector so the next time he was laying beside the busy road and I ever so slowly moved toward him….he thought “lets see how much the old bugger can take” and jumped up and wandered slowly across the road…..somehow dodging the cars hurtling past. He got to the centre of the road all calm and collected and then completely lost control and bolted for the shrubbery on the far side. I was so caught up in watching what HE was doing that I found myself….almost trance-like standing in the middle of the road among the traffic. Regaining my senses, I too bolted for the far side, but restrained myself from diving into the bushes after him. Not only were there bushes and shrubs on this side of the street, there was also a wire fence separating me from him. I got down on all 4’s and peered through the hedge. Hector was there, but wouldn’t come when called and wasn’t quite within reach. I had to go for the secret weapon….the wife!

The idea being that if she couldn’t nag him out no one could……just kidding dear.

Once I’d explained what had happened my wife spiritedly volunteered to go through the wire and shrubbery after Hector. I sort of half supported and half pushed her through the hedge until she was all the way in there except for her feet….which I was gripping onto for dear life. “I can almost touch him…..just a little further” she uttered, and in a flash she had gone….I was left on one side of the hedge my wife’s empty slippers in hand and she was on the other side…..somewhere, barefoot…hopefully with the cat now safely in hand.

Moments later, a rather grubby and scratched face appeared and then some hands and arms came through the branches and leaves – holding a very scared Hector. I took him from her and holding him tightly to my chest – I could feel his heart beating like a machine gun – I got him safely home and gave him some food. Only then did I think of my dear wife…battered and bleeding from scratches….and by now barefoot….on the wrong side of the hedge on the wrong side of the road.

She appeared in the kitchen just at that moment grunted “thanks a lot” at me and then made a fuss of the cat. So all’s well that ends well…..and I’ll make up the bed in the spare room shall I dear?

For the next few months all continued to go well….we got into a routine, as we had with Tibbs. Hector sleeps indoors….meows in the morning to be let out, so we unlock the cat flap (we have to lock it at night to keep the rest of the neighbourhood cats out), and off he goes to return a couple of hours later for another feed or a cuddle or a nap. Like his uncle before him, he doesn’t usually wander too far from home and always returns every couple of hours to check in with us. AND like his uncle he jumps on the bed and nuzzles me in the morning….not every morning, just when HE feels like it. He’s his own man. There is no doubt that it’s he that is in charge and this is definitely Hectors house.

Regardless of what time Hector gets me up to let him out, I always make a fuss of him, stroke him and tell him how special he is….after losing Tibbs suddenly like that I just wanted him to know that he’s loved. (I know I don’t sound like a former hater of cats). Then one morning off he went, 4.30am – through the cat flap into the first dim glow of what was promising to be morning. All through the morning – no Hector….nor the afternoon…nor the evening. I took to the streets checking for any signs…alive or dead…and calling his name. I even checked the shrubbery over the road. Nothing. Evening gave way to the full dark of night. At midnight I climbed into bed – worried sick and fearing for the worst. My wife reminded me that “You’re the guy who doesn’t like cats, remember?”….but by now Hector wasn’t just a cat he was family. We both lay there in the dark, silent…wondering.

Then around 1.30am…a distant Meow….then closer, another….louder. The rattle of the cat flap and a loud MEOW! We leaped out of bed and rushed to the back door and there he was, a little scruffy and musty smelling and minus his collar, but otherwise alive and well. I have never felt so relieved!

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Hector playing with a younger sibling 

He’s back to his old routine. Doesn’t wander far, eats here, sleeps here, gets cuddles here…..plays here, or next door, with his mother and younger brothers and sisters. Yes they have quite a collection of cats next door now after 3 litters of kittens. Some of the kittens have been found new homes but it still leaves around 6 or 7 of our feline friends on the other side of the fence. Of course most of them find their way, at some point during the day, over to our place to play with Hector, to eat his food, drink his milk and of course to dig and shit all over my vegetable gardens. Oh the joy of cats!

I had planted enough garlic in my garden to provide us with a couple of garlic bulbs per week for the whole year…on maturity. Why do cats like to crap in garlic beds? They have dug and shit…shit and dug so much that I’ll be lucky to have a dozen bulbs left come harvest time.

In order to foil their evil plans to do the same to my strawberry beds I have built supports around the garden edges and netted the entire strawberry beds in bird netting – in a bid to not only keep the cats from digging the plants up, but also to protect the ripening fruits from the thieving birds.

The cats and kittens really love the nets. It seems that they make great hammocks….wonderful places to just hang out (literally) and enjoy the spring sunshine.

SO….The difference between dogs and cats. Over all and despite the angst caused by the permanent disappearance of Tibby and the temporary disappearance of Hector, cats in my humble opinion, are far less trouble than dogs to look after. All they ask for is food, water and a cuddle – when it suits them. They clean themselves, take themselves for walks, cover up their own “business” and let themselves in and out via the cat flap. If they are hungry and there is no food out, they will prepare their own meal of rodent or bird (Rat or Tui anyone?- don’t worry, it’s  New Zealand joke).

Following a dog around with a plastic bag in hand, waiting for it to “go to the toilet” – lets face it, leaves a lot to be desired.

They, cats, like human companionship….but only when it suits them and they are not desperately fawning when their laughingly called “owner” (ho-hum) appears in the same room – unlike their canine counterpart, who even if their owner has only been out of sight for five minutes, behave completely deranged when they reappear. Wagging their tails almost off in sheer delight. Man is, without doubt, in charge when it comes to dogs…..but cats definitely rule over men. (When I use the word “man” or “men” I don’t specifically mean a male of the human species –  I use it in the way that we, “the older generation”, used to use the term “mankind”….before we got our wrists slapped and were told it now has to be “humankind”…or even “personkind”)

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Hector aka “He Who Is In Charge”…..but cute with it.

A dog maybe mans best friend and man is, without a doubt, the object of a dogs undying affection….even it seems when the dog has been mistreated. A cat on the other hand may be a loved companion of man (or woman), but man to a cat is just…meh…you can cuddle me when I say you can cuddle me and not a moment sooner…..now where’s my dinner and don’t just give me bloody biscuits!

 

Oh and by the way….the reason that cats make better bookmarks than dogs is that usually, but not always….they are smaller, so fit inside a book easier….and have the ability to lay still for ages. It makes them “purrrfect” bookmarks.