Wednesday, 27 May 2020

A gain, and a loss

Well, it's been over a month now since my last post (about, er, hearing the Last Post) so I suppose it's time for another. Quite honestly, though, stories about travel feel both irrelevant and a bit sad during this time of Covid-19 lockdown. Despite having done pretty well here in New Zealand - no new cases today for the fifth day in a row, no-one in hospital, only 21 people currently infected, the same number as have died altogether - travel is still looking a long way off yet. Our borders are officially shut (though essential personnel like those involved in filming the Avatar and Lord of the Rings TV/movies have apparently been slipping through) and trips overseas won't be possible till there's a vaccine.

Domestic travel is now allowed, though, and a trans-Tasman bubble is a strong possibility for the nearish future, meaning we can go to Australia, and vice versa - though that hardly counts as overseas. But the industry is struggling, and freebie trips for people like me will be way down on the list of priorities, even if publications had enough advertising to pay us for the subsequent stories. So, instead, we return to the theme of this post (see upper right) about how travel stays with you forever after, just waiting for a cue to prompt a memory.

The thing is, that would be all very well, if your (my) memory worked as it should/used to. Sprawled on the sofa watching TV the other night, I got a glimpse of a street with umbrellas hanging above it, and thought, "I've seen somewhere like that! Now where was it...?" Drilling down through the brain cells to locate it took so long that, by the time I'd triumphantly identified it as a street in the San Telmo district of Buenos Aires (which those of us brought up with Sesame Street would expect to be spelled rather differently), I'd entirely forgotten where the original umbrella shot was.

Worse, while lying there, another connection to Argentina occurred to me - but I can't now remember what that one was, either. So that pretty much destroys the whole premise, right? Sorry about that. 
Oh well. I've enjoyed remembering about the Sunday market there, in Plaza Dorego, which was classically colourful, busy and varied, and included satisfyingly local offerings like a man in gaucho gear selling terrifying bits, plus bridles, cruppers, martingales, drop nosebands and fancy browbands (see, I can remember all those terms from my distant horsy past). I was amused to see a man dwarfed by the huge bundle of feather dusters he was selling. There was art and food and music, and - oh, yes! I've just remembered! Jewellery, including pendants made of cut-out coins, including one from neighbouring Uruguay featuring a capybara, which I bought because I like capybara and got very close to one called Roderigo, up the Amazon in Peru. And I was wearing it the night I saw the umbrellas on TV. So there you go: happy ending.
Except, looking at my photos, I've just been reminded of the shoes I saw on one stall and wanted to buy, but they didn't have my size. So now I'm sad again. Damned memories.

Saturday, 25 April 2020

Different, but the same

Well that was an unusual Anzac Day. I've marked it a number of different ways in the past: up at dawn to attend the big service at the War Memorial Museum in the Domain in Auckland - and, less atmospherically, at the 11am one (but with added flyover); with a distinctly nautical theme in Devonport, assisted by Young Mariner daughters amongst the marchers; at Hobsonville with an Air Force focus; here on Waiheke at the memorial near the supermarket, that I drive past without a thought all the rest of the year: laying distinctly Kiwi poppies next to the Aussie wreaths on the memorial at Longreach, in deepest Queensland; and, most gloriously, at Gallipoli for the centenary in 2015.

That was an event: to be one of 10,500 assorted Kiwis and Aussies sitting through the night above Anzac Cove, below the Sphinx, hearing nightingales singing in the dark and the waves lapping on the pebbled beach below us, and waiting for dawn out over the sea where warships glided past. It was super-special, and a privilege to be there then - though even in ordinary years there is always a substantial contingent from Downunder who make a pilgrimage to remember all those who died there, in the water, on the beach, in trenches and, hopelessly exposed, trying to climb those gullied cliffs in equally hopeless attempts to push the Turks (who lost even more men) backwards. It was a disaster - but it was also the making of our national identity, for both New Zealand and Australia, and we won't ever forget it.

There was no-one there this year, though: Turkey is locked down too, and at Gallipoli dawn broke quietly. No-one was at any of the usual locations here, either - just people standing in the dark outside their gates, social-distancing, listening to a much shorter than usual broadcast service on their phones. I stood on our balcony looking down the valley, with just a few lights showing in the houses tucked in the bush, listening to ruru (owls) and tui, and the waves lapping on the stones down on our beach, just as they do at Anzac Cove. And then someone down in the dark played the Last Post over a loudspeaker, and it echoed up and down the valley as the clouds blushed pink, and it was perfect.

At Mt Maunganui, though, they had their sunrise over the sea, and a piper. Gorgeous.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

The horse survived, I hope

Happy sigh. I wasn't going mad after all - and here's the proof. This is a statue that's in the ocean at North Coogee, south of Fremantle, about 20 metres offshore. It's an unusual and striking sight, and the story that goes with it is even stranger.

Charles Yelverton O'Connor was an Irish-born engineer who was responsible for some of West Australia's most useful construction projects - road, rail, harbours - most notably Fremantle Harbour, and the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme that piped drinkable water huge distances from Perth out into the desert for the miners busily digging the dirt around Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie. It's the longest water main in the world, still in use today, and has earned its keep over and over since O'Connor was responsible for its design and construction - but there was criticism at the time about the expense, as well as unfounded personal slander. Feeling unappreciated, in 1902 O'Connor rode his horse into the waves, and shot himself.

Shocking, eh? And so sad, because the pipeline was completed the following year, and was, and remains, a resounding success. I was reminded of it when watching 'Great Australian Railway Journeys' last night, when the multi-coloured presenter (and failed politician) Michael Portillo took the Indian Pacific from Adelaide to Kalgoorlie. He mentioned O'Connor there, praising the pipeline, and rang a bell for me that wasn't easy to identify since I saw the statue in 2008, and this blog (rapidly becoming my substitute memory) began in 2009. 

I took the Indian Pacific myself, back in 1977, when it was a lot less luxurious than it appeared in Portillo's travelogue. That's a long time ago, and mostly what I remember now is deciding that the Nullabor Straight - 146 kilometres without a single deviation - has to be the world's most boring record; and that waking up in the dark at 7am just before arriving in Perth, and rushing to be first to the shower turns out, when dressed and finally strapping on my watch only to realise that it had been 1.30am when I'd woken, to be a mistake it's impossible to rectify.

Other connections? Turns out O'Connor first came to New Zealand, where as assistant engineer for Canterbury province (I'm a Cantabrian) he constructed the Otira Gorge section of the Arthur's Pass road - again, to service gold miners. That's a pretty challenging section of road through the mountains, with a long tunnel and, since 1999, an impressive viaduct. O'Connor would have loved it. 

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Laissez les bon temps rouler - encore une fois

Today New Zealand enters its fourth week of Level 4 lockdown, with 9 deaths recorded and a total of around 1400 Covid-19 cases, half of whom have recovered. Level 3 is looking likely - time to think about work again...
A couple of days ago, there was a first; and also quite likely to be a last - for some time, anyway. The Herald sent me a payment for a travel story I haven't even written yet. That's unheard of, in my experience, which previously has been: submit story/have it accepted/wait 𝓍 amount of time to see it published (record: three years)/submit invoice/wait another month for the pay round to process it/finally receive the money. Not exactly conducive to peace of mind/physical survival if I was relying on that as my sole income - especially considering the standard word rate has almost halved since I first started. As I always say, about travel writing: it is (or was) a great lifestyle, but no way to make a living. 
I don't entirely understand why this particular payment has happened. We all know, or should, that newspapers have always relied much more on advertising than selling copies to fund them (seen those early front pages entirely comprised of classified ads?) which is why they're on their last legs now. Facebook, Google* and Trade Me/Ebay etc have stolen all that income. And currently even the small businesses that today make up the majority of their advertising revenue have faded away during the lockdown, so hundreds of news media employees have lost their jobs, those that were spared are suffering pay cuts, and their overall future is very uncertain. All this, at a time when people want more real journalism than ever, and readership is soaring.
The travel section is heavily influenced each week by the ever-changing advertising content - the lead stories are selected to support full-page ads. The account manager is therefore presumably as important as the actual editor to the supplement's health. How it all works, I have no idea - but, presumably, this time the agency behind the planned Southern States issue was a lot more upfront with their funding than usual, and the Herald has kindly passed that on to those of us providing the bits that readers actually read, rather than turn the page on (I'm assuming that they're like me: literally blind to all advertising (ssshh, don't tell them)). Of course, all this was before the travel industry died, world-wide, and NZ locked its borders till who knows when.
So, what will my story, when the travel section revives, be about? Lafayette, Louisiana. I spent three days there en route to IPW in New Orleans in 2016 (this year's event has, of course, been cancelled) and have written about it only twice since. The first thing I remember about the stay is my overwhelming feeling of sheer relief at returning my hire car intact (both the car and me) after driving myself around on the wrong side of the road with no gps support (SO many u-turns!). Once I'm past that though, I remember lots of lovely things about the town. Pretty historic buildings, friendly people on the street, all sorts of new and delicious foods, such great dancing, a new appreciation for air conditioning (it was June), and far fewer alligators than expected.
I remember the olde-worlde charm of Coerte Voorhies with his waxed white moustache, and wonder now whether his son Kim is still happy with his choice of president ("He's crazy, but at least he's not a politician"). Is Terry still playing cheerful music with his Zydeco Bad Boys band at the Blue Moon Saloon, or is it locked down too? How about all those oldies I saw strutting their stuff so energetically at Randol's Restaurant and Dance Hall? Are they pining away in enforced isolation? Did the Old Tyme Grocery manage to sell their standard 2,000 grilled shrimp po'boys every Friday through Lent this year? Has Zachary the young fish-counter managed to hold out against all those fierce husband-hunting mothers with unmarried daughters? Only three days, but vivid. Thanks, Lafayette.
*UPDATE: And today Google announces its Journalism Emergency Relief Fund! Kind thought, somewhat undermined by their attitude to paying (ie not paying) their taxes anywhere.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Bauer does the opposite

In German, Bauer means builder, but this morning, with no notice, this international company demolished half of New Zealand's media in one fell stroke. Despite being offered wage subsidies by the Government, and being encouraged to keep going through the pandemic, they have used the Covid-19 crisis as the excuse to kill off a bundle of magazines that have been published here, some of them, for 80-90 years, and which are part of everyday life.

Some, like the NZ Woman's Weekly, deliver comfort and gossipy fun along with their recipes, royalty and showbiz tattling, and questionable fashion advice; but others, like the Listener and North & South, have been a valued source of stories about local people and investigations into issues that are important to us, if no-one else in the world. It's quality journalism, produced by small teams of extremely hard-working and talented people, dedicated to doing their bit towards meeting unforgiving publishing schedules, week after week, or month after month. And this morning, en masse via video link, they were told not, as they were expecting, that they would have to publish online only this week, but that they would not be publishing at all, ever again, from this minute.

It's not even as though these close-knit teams could extract a molecule of comfort from hearing this together, since they are all in lockdown and working from DIY workstations at home. So cruel.

The rest of us, the buyers and readers of their magazines, are in mourning too. These publications are just always there, on the newsstands in the supermarket, on the sofa, on waiting room tables, and always have been. And now? No more.

It was getting a story published in North & South that started me on my travel writing career back in 2003, and I would always have been grateful to the magazine for that, even if I hadn't later become friends with the women who produce it today. I know so many people who lost their jobs this morning, there and at the other magazines who have printed my stories: the Listener, NZWW, Next, Kia Ora, Simply You, Australian Women's Weekly.

And so, I guess, have I. I was already despondent about the travel sections of the newspapers that I write for shrinking away to virtually nothing, their advertising having dried up because of Covid-19 putting the kibosh on all travel, but was consoling myself with the thought that at least the magazines would be there. Wrong! 

So, in the wider context, now we've lost the travel industry, and most of our print media, with what remains also coughing up blood thanks to the internet's gradually poaching all the advertising that funds them. What's next?

Danke für nichts, Bauer.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle*

There's a house near Enclosure Bay, on one of my morning walk routes [which, by the way, I never pass without remembering the Orca Incident, that I didn't witness, dammit] that more often than not is playing music - not super-loud, but noticeable enough that I'm glad they're not my neighbours. The actual music varies, from indie rock to Enya, but today they were playing jazz. Regular 😀 readers will know how that instantly jangles every nerve in my body; but I was able to distract myself by taking myself back to the last walk I did where I had that sort of accompaniment. Which, of course, was New Orleans, because jazz is pervasive there.

I had actually been a bit apprehensive about that very thing before going there; but in the end it was ok simply because it's just part of the city - like the rowdy fat people drinking on Bourbon Street, like the pretty coloured houses in the French Quarter, like the drifts of icing sugar surrounding a pile of beignets, like the sparkly parade throws dangling from trees above cracked pavements in the Garden District. It was all just part of the atmosphere, and I loved it; and enjoyed being reminded of it as I walked along.

Even so, it was good to get out of earshot soon after, and hear just the birdsong again - tui, doves, kereru, blackbirds - and then, yay! a magpie. I love to hear a magpie calling. They're more rural than I am, so it doesn't happen that often, and is special when it does. There's something so lovely and melodious about that distinctive sound echoing along a valley - and, for me, evocative. 

Of Australia, because that's where I've spent more time in the country than I have here at home - and also where our magpies were originally introduced from. It was just one summer in the Clare Valley well north of Adelaide, back when I was 22, looking after a farmer's polo ponies, up early and out every day riding round the property mostly on my own but sometimes helping to move stock, cantering over sunburnt grassy paddocks, seeing kangaroos and a fox, and always hearing magpies calling. (Also seeing snakes and spiders, and ants in the sugar bowl on the kitchen table, but we'll move on from that). It was a long, hot summer, just like this one, and that magpie brought it all back.

* Thanks to Denis Glover and his poem 'The Magpies' for that wonderfully accurate bit of onomatapoeia.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020


Since all my outlets for travel stories have closed down for the foreseeable future, I have more time on my hands than can be sensibly filled by my trusty laptop and its small pal the iPhone. So, like many people, I've been looking to use some of this lockdown to catch up with a few of the jobs that have been sitting quietly in corners, waiting patiently. For years.

Accordingly, I have finally put up, under the letterbox at the gate (yes, foreigners, that's how we do mail here in Enzed - trusted to be safe, unsupervised and unlocked, out on the street) the decorative ceramic numbers I bought five years ago in Paris. Agreed, that is a long time to have them sitting on top of the bookshelf, being regularly dusted (not). Anyway, I found some wood to set them into, carved out the inset space, stained it, glued the pieces in (hours of happy fun subsequently, picking dried glue off my fingers), grouted, and then screwed it to the fence under the letterbox. Job done (but no photo because my workmanship bears less scrutiny these days).
And all the time, I was remembering that Saturday afternoon trip on the Metro to the architecturally extravagant BHV - Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville - where I browsed happily round the basement DIY section, choosing the numbers. It's a department store, established in 1852, that I now wish I had explored more thoroughly but (all together now) I was short on time. So I just bought 89c with appropriate forget-me-not surrounds, and went upstairs again to emerge in the busy square in front of the Town Hall, in all its even more elaborate glory. I wandered past it to the banks of the Seine, and along to l'Île St Louis where people were picnicking on rugs by the river drinking champagne from glass flutes; and a dog was having a swim. At the tip of the island I got the classic view of Notre Dame on l'Île de la Cité - of course, now it looks sadly so different, after that terrible fire - and then crossed the Pont St-Louis to battle with the crowds thronging the square in front of the cathedral. That's where all French roads are measured from, did you know?
And then I took the Metro back to my hotel to meet up with the rest of my group - or tried to, anyway. I had to have several goes at finding it, and in the end was enormously grateful to Letitia who was in charge of us, who had very sensibly drawn our attention that morning to the features of the hotel's exterior. Truly, I would probably have wandered for hours if she hadn't. And then we all assembled in the foyer to be taken to our ship, Avalon's Tapestry II, for a glorious 8-day glide along the Seine to Normandy, and back. It was a lovely, lovely cruise, in every way - one of the best. Hopefully, I'll remember that, every time I see 89c.


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