Friday 26 February 2021

One of the smaller circles

The news about the probable new season (yay!) of Frasier was accompanied by this photo of David Hyde Pierce in the Broadway production of Spamalot. Oh, how that hurts! 

Because I saw him playing that role, there, then (in 2006), along with Hank Azaria and a bunch of other less famous but still familiar faces. The whole thing was such a thrill - my first time in New York, an actual Broadway show, such familiar actors there in real life and, most wonderfully satisfying of all, I only knew how to get a cancellation ticket because they had done it on Frasier.

I hadn't even known that the show was on. I came across it entirely by chance on my first night in the city while I was making the obligatory visit to Times Square (spoiler: not a square). I saw the billboard for the Schubert Theatre, went along out of curiosity, found that the show was sold out that night - and then saw the cancellations queue. I took my place and, in just 20 minutes, was offered a single ticket (that nobody else in the line was interested in) for full price ($111.25, ouch - but...) by one of the minor cast members. Only centre of the front row in the circle!

It was brilliant. Slick and funny and so well done. I loved it, and the whole experience. A fabulous, unexpected and satisfying beginning to what was going to be a wonderful and exciting trip. Sigh...

Wednesday 24 February 2021


Sorry. This is another gloomy post. I've just read a Guardian story about all the workers who have died in Qatar during the construction of the stadiums there ahead of next year's World Cup (that's the Football - ie soccer - World Cup, fellow Kiwis).

According to the paper, 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangla Desh and Sri Lanka have died in the ten years since Qatar won hosting rights. And that's not counting all the other "guest workers" from Kenya and the Philippines, who are also numerous on the building sites in this small, very rich but, outside of Doha, kind of bleak country. There are probably many, many more unrecorded.

I was there in 2019, courtesy of Qatar Airways who were wanting to push their new route to Auckland, and we got the full publicity barrage. It was impressive, seeing the plans for the stadiums (stadia), even the one that looks like a vulva, and what they'd already finished. The whole city was bristling with cranes and scaffolding, and it was easy to get caught up in the excitement of what they were preparing for so enthusiastically.

Even then, though, there was some quiet muttering, and I looked at the air-conditioned glass bus shelters on the streets, and wondered how on earth men, even from hot countries, could cope with working physically, in dangerous conditions, in such stifling heat. We did see them, of course, on the building sites and around the streets, in their helmets and boiler suits and they didn't look cheerful. It's not surprising that, as well as deaths from falls and other causes, and the vast majority of fatalities due to what Qatar blithely categorises as "natural causes" - ie heat - a fair chunk of the figures are down to suicide. Poor things. It's the final (actually, the first) insult, that they had to pay to go there to work.

Monday 22 February 2021

Ten years

Wow. Ten years. It's been ten whole years since that summer lunchtime when I and the nice local guy who was painting our house (and whose name I can't remember - sorry, mate) left our respective work and stood in the living room watching in appalled horror at the scenes on TV coming out of Christchurch. 6.3, officially an aftershock from the bigger September earthquake, but shallower, and closer, and so destructive, of both lives and buildings. 185 people were killed, and hundreds of thousands of others' lives were changed forever, some by injury, all by shock.

Today, the city is - slowly - reinventing itself, with some parts a triumph, others sneered at as mistakes, plenty more projects still waiting to be finished or even started. There are still expanses of nothing, where once there were lovely heritage buildings, or homes, and that is really sad. But nothing is so sad as dead babies, dead teenagers far from their homes overseas, a dead brother still holding his sister's hand under the rubble, a woman being separated onsite from her pinned-down legs. 

Poor Christchurch. At least, finally, work has begun on restoring the cathedral, symbol and heart of the city - but it will only have the same outward appearance as before. Inside, it will be changed. But, hopefully, stronger.

Thursday 11 February 2021

From the sublime to the you-know-what

With thanks to Auckland Unlimited for this famil

One thing I have learned to do, in all the hotel rooms I have stayed in during this cobbled-together and now coughing-up-blood career as a travel writer, is what to do about a noisy fridge. It seems so obvious, but it took me ages to discover it: you don't even think about trying to get at the inevitably impossible-to-reach socket, to turn it off. No, instead, all you do is open the door and turn the thermostat down to 0. It's that simple. You're welcome.

Unfortunately, it's not so easy to deal with mosquitoes, so I still had a somewhat disturbed night, despite it being otherwise so dark and quiet. Still, I forgot all that, sitting in the morning overlooking the gloriously unspoiled black-sand, surf-rimmed Te Henga Bethells Beach far below, with weka darting over the lawn and John delivering a fine flat white and (5th-generation Bethell) Trude bringing an unexpected but very welcome hot, crisp cheese croissant. I liked their boutique cottages, quaint, quirky and comfortable, and full of welcoming and personal touches.

But I couldn't linger so, turning the fridge thermostat back up again, I set off down the hill and away again inland and northwards, to my first stop of the day: Kaipara Sculpture Gardens. Owner David got down off his digger to welcome me and explain that, with the garden centre up and running, he wanted to add art to the experience, so the garden alongside, which is lovely enough on its own, has been punctuated with sculptures. Big, small, all types, changing every year, it was a real delight to wander around discovering them. Some were silly, of course - it's art - but others I did admire, even covet; and I wished I had time to follow the wilder conservation trail down the hill.

My itinerary is themed 'art/history/nature' and my next stop was at Wellsford, to visit the Albertland and Districts Museum. I'm getting used now to being the only visitor to these places and consequently the focus of the docent's attention. I do like an enthusiast, and they always are. The focus here is the settlers who were sucked in by the scam of their day, ie sailing here in 1862 for 90+ days all the way from England to start a new life on what we'd today call shovel-ready land. Except what they found was untouched, dense, virgin bush. 

It was hard, for everybody, for a long time, but they persisted and, eventually, got to use the pianos, printing press, china tea sets and other niceties they'd brought so optimistically. It was interesting to browse around all this stuff, study the model ships, rows of portrait photos, and WWI memorabilia including two examples of the "dead man's penny" - big medals given to the families of those who died.  More cheerfully, there was the first ever Buzzy Bee ever made, along with his mates Richard Rabbit, Peter Pup and Dorable Duck.

Skipping through Wellsford - awful place, totally ruled by huge noisy trucks rumbling through its middle - I headed, irritatingly, south again, down to Matakana and the colourful joys of Morris & James. I always enjoy looking at their big, bright, shiny pots and platters - even if the woman busy decorating one of them didn't seem to appreciate being photographed - and it would have been the day's highlight if it wasn't for what came next.

Not included on my official, but annoyingly illogical itinerary, the Sculptureum is somewhere I've wanted to go for ages. It's a winery, but also a fabulously well presented collection of idiosyncratic art works from all over the world, no expense spared. Very eager, and Russian, Inna gave me a brief intro and let me wander by myself - literally, since it was the end of the day and no other visitors were there. I was captivated. Beautiful, gorgeous, intricate, colourful glass; works by Picasso, Chagall, Rodin, Cézanne; animal sculptures in all sorts of materials; flowers ditto. 

Then a neat palm and Mondo grass garden with more of the same, but much bigger; then another indoor gallery solely dedicated to, to my delight, a chandelier by none other than Dale Chihuly. And then another garden with massive driftwood sculptures - ie, life-sized whales and elephants - plus real rocks and boulders, and interesting inspirational quotes. I ran out of time, sadly, and rushed the end - it's a two-hour experience, minimum.

Back in Matakana, with its famously arty but dismayingly smelly public loos, I toyed with the idea of going to one of its quirky cinemas that evening. My leisurely and delicious MMK dinner outside on the river bank was, however, interrupted by Plume Villas ringing and wanting to know when I'd be checking in because they wanted to lock their gate. It wasn't the best introduction, and when I got there and wandered around the otherwise pleasant gardens I was put off too by the multiple big, red, bossy signs. And then there was nowhere to plug in my computer, except at the kitchen bench. And then, when I turned out the lights I discovered there were very bright security lights right outside. That stayed on till about 1am. Sigh...

Wednesday 10 February 2021

Second, and third, time lucky

With thanks to Auckland Unlimited for this famil

Right. This time it worked out, my little famil to Northland, that a fortnight ago got stymied at the last minute by a rogue community outbreak. Today I collected my Nissan in the city and smugly drove against the morning traffic towards the west where my first point of call was Titirangi. This is a sort of mainland Waiheke: people drift here away from suburbia to live an alternative, arty sort of life tucked into the hills and the bush, and that was my focus today - after a very decent coffee at the Deco Eatery, which has an unexpected, but pleasing, Turkish theme.

Te Uru Contemporary Gallery is somewhere I've visited before, and been more taken by its elegant stairway than the modern art on display there, not being much in tune with that sort of thing. So it should have been educational to take a tour around it with Andrew, its naturally enthusiastic director - and it was, to a point. 

It all looked great in the gallery's beautifully lit rooms, and there was a good variety of works on display. Not many that I would happily share my home with, however, though I could appreciate the inventiveness and skill. I did get as far as equating some of the more confronting pieces with a play - ie, ephemeral, making a statement to remember but not to live with.

I went next door to the original home of the gallery, before it was outgrown - Lopdell House - and was equally delighted by the staircase there, to be honest. Walking along the main street, past an inordinate number of cafés for the size of the town, I was disappointed not to see any of the hens and roosters who were so ubiquitous last time I visited. The lady in the florist told me there'd been "a big cull" because they'd got so bold they were stopping traffic. Shame - but they didn't get them all, and I heard crowing as I walked back to my car.

I made an unofficial detour then to the Crown Lynn Museum that Andrew had mentioned. I've never been a huge fan of this iconic Kiwi brand of china, but it's certainly a very familiar part of my past, so it felt right to acknowledge it. The museum is small but eager, next door to the old kiln, and the curator Rosemary was very informative. They made bricks and insulators originally - the china was an offshoot. I knew people collected it, but was surprised to hear about an auction live on TradeMe where a cracked swan ornament was already up to $1200.

Next I drove off into the country, winding through farmland and bush, to Westbrook Winery, classically set at the end of an avenue of trees in a neatly trimmed garden that sloped down to a lily pond. Tracey was - surprise - full of enthusiasm and information, even about the smoothness of the high-Ph bore water on the table. Naturally it was the wines she focused on but, as regular 😀 readers will recall, wine-tastings are not my forte (after the third one I can't remember the first) so I was glad to be able limit things to just one: their Crackling Rosé, which was indeed very nice - so nice, in fact, that I actually bought a bottle. I know!

Stopping in Helensville, where I dutifully looked around the gallery of local artists, noticed yet another Turkish restaurant, and was button-holed by a very determined lady in the unofficial visitor centre. I eschewed the itinerary's suggested drive to Muriwai gannet colony because it was raining, and I've been there several times already. Instead, I took another unofficial detour to Hobsonville and Whenuapai, both of them huge and fast-growing housing estates with a distinctive and very different, untraditional look to them.

Finally it was time for dinner, at the Riverhead Tavern, where I've also been before, by ferry, and sat at the same table overlooking the water. It was perfectly nice, and the food was tasty, but eating on your own is a skill that I've let get rusty in the ages since life was normal. Owner Stephen came for a chat and was full of - all together now - enthusiasm for what they've done to the place and still have plans for, despite the current situation.

And then, at last, I headed off to remote Bethells Beach to my accommodation for the night. Except, I couldn't find it. I got to the end of the long single-lane road winding down towards the beach between scattered baches in the bush, peering at the numbers on the very random letterboxes, looking in vain for 267. GPS didn't help, there was no cellphone coverage, it was getting dark, no-one was home in the first two houses with lights on that I knocked at and, if it hadn't been third time lucky, I might have had to spend the night in the car. But some nice and helpful people let me use their landline, and the BB Cottages owner came down to guide me through a gateway at the end of the road with its notable lack of the number 267, but with an unhelpful 'Private Property' sign instead and, after a brief glimpse from the garden of a sullen sunset over the sea, I settled into my home for the night in the company of a friendly teddy bear on the bed.


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