The Three Legged Pig

A Camp Fire story by Peter Lugg

My friend Peter Lugg has always kept us entertained at the fireside (though I’m still wondering why we call him Sparky when he couldn’t light a fire to save his life). Here’s one of his stories that can be extended to be as shaggy as you like. Just keep on adding to the feats of this remarkable pig.

Not really a shaggy dog tale but you may be interested that I was walking past a farm on the Mendips the other day when I saw a pig with only 3 legs. I thought this was pretty strange so, when I saw the farmer, I had to ask.

“A long story,” he explained. “Last winter was particularly cold. Snow everywhere and a deep frost that didn’t rise above freezing all day for weeks. Our pond froze over and, against family rules, our young daughter ventured out onto the ice. She fell through into the freezing water. Unbelievably, the pig eased gently out across the ice and reached through the hole, grabbed my daughter by the collar and pulled her out. Then the pig dragged her to safety into the barn, wrapped her in straw to warm her and came to fetch me. Absolutely incredible!”

“But why the 3 legs?” I asked.

“Well, not long after the iced pond incident, we had a fire in one of our outbuildings,” continued the farmer. “There were a number of sheep in the barn and we couldn’t get close through the flames to rescue them. We were faced with the horrific prospect of watching the poor sheep burn to a crisp when the pig suddenly grabbed a tarpaulin with its teeth and covered itself, ran through the heat and smoke, leapt up to the barn door catch and released the sheep who ran out to safety. As I said, unbelievable!”

Again I asked, “But why the 3 legs?”

“Well,” the farmer explained at last, “if you had a pig like that, you wouldn’t eat it all at once, would you?”

Biking the Rimutaka Rail Trail

Where historical research takes you

We put our trail bikes on the 11.01 from Featherston. It’s an old fashioned station, where they hand write the tickets and the guard helps lifts the bikes aboard (and he’s as cheerful as they come).  We get off through the tunnel at Maymorn Station and are back 5 hours later after a glorious day cycling the historic Rimutaka Rail Trail. This is the track the railway took before they cut the tunnel through the hill in 1955. It’s a fairly easy ride with lots of stops, packed with bush and mountain scenery and haunted with history.

There was once a steam railway here, linking the Wairarapa and Wellington.

Completed in 1878, the Rimutaka Incline on the Wairarapa side is famous for the Fell Engines that chugged up the hill for 55 years, negotiating the steep 1:15 gradient, clenched to a third, middle rail. The line was built and maintained by a remarkable group of engineers, navvies and gangers.  It’s the ghosts of the gangers I’ve come to find.

I’m writing a novel set in 1878 and one of my characters, Lars, works on the Incline.  He walks in from Kaitoke one day with a companion and doesn’t come back. It is blowing a gale on the tops and the mud slides down over the track, leaving ugly scars of exposed greywacke on the unstable slopes.

I rode alongside Lars’s ghost up through the lush Pakaratahi Valley over his 1870s bridges and culverts to the Summit, where we stopped, as he did, for water and a sandwich. When Lars sheltered from my imaginary wild storm of ’78 there was the beginnings of a settlement bursting with pioneering potential. Not for us – we walked among the rusty remains of long abandoned steam engines, discarded over the years and left to decompose in splendid ruin on the peaceful plateau.

In the icy Summit tunnel the third rail begins and the track descends steeply towards Cross Creek. Here I checked the logistics of my story, imagining the danger of exposure on the stretch they call Siberia where the winds (later, in 1880) were so strong they blew a passenger carriage and goods vans off the rails and down into the valley below.

For us on our bikes, it was an unusually still day. Half of my head was tripping along the raised rail with the gangers battling an historic gale, the other half enjoying a calm bike ride, almost 140 years later, stopping in the sunshine to read the old stories on the plaques posted along the route.

Ladle Bend creek bridge
Ladle Bend creek bridge on the Rimutaka Trail, c1891

“My father occasionally took my sister and me for a ride on a three-wheel railway jigger. As we all sat on one side of the jigger, it had a tendancy to upturn when passing around the many curves … I was always frightened going over Ladle Bend Creek Bridge as it was rather high and had no sides.” Ron Mitchell, child at Summit 1933-40

The Necessary Angel – book review

The Necessary Angel, by C K Stead

I’m always a bit suspicious about an older bloke inventing a protagonist with three delicious women on his plate.  So I read C K Stead’s The Necessary Angel  as a wistful story with more than a touch of fantasy.

As an exploration of relationships I did find I had to suspend belief. Are women (especially young, attractive and bright women) really so susceptible to a middle-aged married man’s charms?

Even Max’s high achieving wife, who disdainfully ejects him from the family home and children, seems unrealistically warm and understanding as she sets him up downstairs in a shag pad. You don’t get the feeling that they are so particularly estranged that he would immediately start exploring other women, it is hardly a way to win back the affection of his wife and continue a relationship of mutual respect with his children. Perhaps a holiday might have been a better way to re-charge the marriage rather than bringing a couple of hot young colleagues home to bed.

But this is Paris and the additional love-interest women are both embroiled in other relationships anyway. So, all good, then.

Paris is gorgeous to walk around with C K Stead. He has the poet’s ability to give an intense feeling of place in so few words. I did find myself re-reading some lovely phrases over again and out loud. It feels real. Narrow streets, leafy squares, roadside eating and the November wind. The incidental characters, too, are perfect: the concierge, the beggars, Skipper the dog.  The lead character doesn’t need to be a New Zealander – a Brit would serve just as well, and Max, who lecturers at the Nouvelle Sorbonne on war poetry, feels more European than any kiwi I know. But I still have enough of a chip on my shoulder to get a bit of a buzz when a kiwi (albeit a fictional one) has a prestigious starring role.

By any other author I would suggest the academic citations are slightly pretentious. Of course this is a story about literary academics and C K Stead has every right to name drop Flaubert, Amis, Lessing, Naipaul, Mansfield, Houellebecq, Fitzgerald, Stein, Hemmingway, Edward Thomas, Nabokov, Roland Barthes, Claude Simon, Wallace Stevens, Gurdjeff, Robbe-Grillet … come on! Keep up!  Perhaps it was the characters intimidating me rather than the author (in which case, great writing!),  but I did rather felt Stead glaring at me every time I was obliged to hit google.

There’s a sub-plot, the mystery of who stole the (so-called) Cezanne. The painting itself has a strange provenance which makes interesting reading, but we know who stole it.  The sadness and wantonness of the result of this event I thought rather wasted as  a finale. Holy shit! That’s not an ending, there will obviously be a discovery and a reckoning and what happens then, to Max and the easy truce with his forgiving wife?  This sub-plot would have made a cracking main story.

Je Suis Charlie! is a sudden loud note against the background noise of political unrest, migration and terrorism – a rise in the tension that flickers in the corner of the story like an unwatched TV.  The Necessary Angel of the title could be many things, Helen’s lithium, Helen herself, Sylvie, or tout le monde who come out onto the Paris boulevards to stand against terror.

Put your sophisticated socks on, settle down in a quiet place and do read this book. Prepare to be agitated and frustrated by the characters, challenged by the story and then suddenly and often delighted by the very elegant writing.

The Colour – book review

The Colour, by Rose Tremain

Probably my favourite New Zealand historical novel is by an English author.

Rose Tremain’s The Colour I can re-read over and over again and I have to keep buying new copies as I give mine away to guests. It’s a beautifully written, literary novel, with a strong woman at its heart – the wonderful Harriet Salt (unsaid: of the earth). She gets on with things, Harriet, and I love her for it.

Harriet emigrates from Norfolk to Christchurch in the 1860s with her asinine husband Joseph Blackstone (black heart, perhaps? He is running away from a nasty crime) and his harpy mother.

Harriet my girl, it was never going to be easy.

They build a “cob house” and attempt to farm.  Tremain’s descriptions of colonial life are so evocative and detailed she might have experienced them. Details are real and frustrating: the crumbling walls, the sickness, the snow and floods, isolation and irritation. Characters are numerous and colourful but never overblown – this is the decade of the gold rush and the South Island was indeed populated with thieves and prostitutes, prospectors and chancers, mystical Maoris and opium smokers.

There is a nice contrast with the neighbours, Dorothy and Toby Orchard (the name alone indicating these are successful colonials). The balance is important – the Orchards have the life to which Harriet and Joseph aspire, but step by step Joseph tramples on their chances of a successful future. He puts his house in the wrong place, builds from the wrong materials, doesn’t love his wife, carries sins, doesn’t prepare for weather and finally, and terminally, falls under the spell of a dusting of gold lifted from the creek. There’s not much Harriet can do. Joseph heads for the goldfields.

Harriet eventually follows and there is an intermingling of stories over the mountains and down to the west coast mines: the Orchard’s son and his dreamy Maori nurse Pare, Joseph’s many failures on the goldfields (both moral and economic) and Harriet’s chance relationship with a sympathetic Chinese gardener.

Harriet Salt is on my list of great female characters.  I like to think her pioneering spirit lives on down the generations of “get on with it” New Zealand women.

 

 

Lilac Girls – book review

Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly

Usually I shy away from war stories.

Too often, I find they are written as entertainment, like any other fiction, with enhanced heroes and baddies and a guided narrative that tells you how to think and feel, peppered with examples of man’s inhumanity to man, with lashings of mass murder, rape and torture and without any wonder that people should behave in this way at all. I don’t want to be entertained by violence.

There are exceptions, of course, but these are by extraordinary writers who handle war with great care and purpose. And the purpose should not be gratuitous entertainment, not even solely “lest we forget” (which is better served by non-fiction). It is to explain and help us come to some understanding. If an author is going to have a character do horrendous things, there must be some insight into their psychology other than the fact they were at war and everyone behaved that way. Lesser writers should leave well alone.

And so to Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly, who gets two out of three characters spot on, but doesn’t begin to reveal the third.  It’s a book about Polish children subjected to horrific abuse in Nazi concentration camp, a tall order for a first novel and the kind of book I usually avoid at all costs, but given to me with strong recommendation.

The cover has three women walking companionably arm in arm. Wrong!  The three women who tell the story do not, at any time or in any sense, walk arm in arm.

  1. Caroline is a New York socialite, a rich do-gooder who, despite the silver spoon in her mouth, is a terrific heroine. She sticks her oar in every way she can from the comfort of home with relentless energy and helps the unfortunates of Europe with a clear moral purpose. I love to think that such people existed, and yes – she is based on a true character. Kelly invented a lover for her, which was unconvincing and detracted from her story.
  2. Kasia is a rabbit. A Polish child captured with her sister, friend and mother and sent to Ravensbruck where the girls are experimented on like rabbits, their legs cut open and infected with tetanus and gangrene, rubbed with dirt and broken glass to test the efficacy of sulfa drugs. This is a true crime, though Kasia is a composite character.
  3. Herta joins the story early and we rather like her, a young German medical student from an educated home who is ambiguous in her humanity, but appears liberal and ambitious. She worries about boys, her father’s health, money. She practices surgery on the meat in her uncle’s butchery and to earn her school fees she allows his weekly rape. “There was curious comfort in the sameness of it.” Really?   She progresses from working in a clinic with children who suck their thumbs to her first murder at Ravensbruck relatively quickly, because she needs the money and wants a more advanced job. Then she befriends Kaisa’s mum, but tortures Kaisa and the other “rabbits” anyway. This is beyond comprehension.

In the author’s notes, Kelly asks “How could she have done what she did and especially to other women?” I think, without any insight into this problem, Kelly should not have given this character a voice.

The doctor’s character aside, the novel does service in illuminating this episode and the fact that it is so widely read and discussed is testament to the serious research behind the novel.

Lest we forget.

 

 

Ferry gliding – rafting the Mohaka

And ferry gliding old New Zealand style

Rafting the Mohaka river is one of my great joys. Even on the cold and wet days, there’s a chance of a hot pool at a campsite.  On a good day, there’s sparkling water and picnics on the banks,  pirates and cliff jumping. And it’s always an education.

Last trip I battled against a new captain (sorry Barry!) for half a day before one of the other paddlers told me to relax and follow orders. Barry was “ferry gliding”, a technique I hadn’t seen before.

Rather than head the raft down the current, he kept the raft on an angle and let the power of the water push the boat across the flow from one eddy to another, crossing bank to bank with very smooth control.

Barry told us ferry gliding was a technique used extensively in colonial days for ferry crossings (hence the name). In the 1800s New Zealand rivers were crossed – in order of sophistication – on foot, on horseback, by canoe, by punt or a larger ferry and very occasionally by a bridge. Early colonial bridges were often pretty makeshift and were regularly washed away.

The punts were attached by a pully wire to a high cable hung across a river, and, as with our ferry gliding across the Mohaka, the flow of the river (or the pull of the tide) worked with the angle of the ferry punt to push passengers across the water.

Ferry punt on Buller River
Horse and carriage crossing the Buller River, South Island New Zealand in the 1880s

We willingly throw ourselves down the rapids in an inflatable raft with our life jackets, helmets, wetsuits, PLBs, maps & compass, the car and the trailer parked up at the end with a change of clothes, a thermos of hot tea and a comfortable ride home.   And we call ourselves adventurers.

Here’s an evocative extract from Wanganui Herald, Volume I, Issue 177, 26 December 1867, Page 2. It’s typical reading from the period!

An inquest was held this morning in the Exchange Hotel [Wanganui], before H. J. Perham, Esq., Coroner, and a jury of twelve, on the body of John CONROY, who was drowned off a punt on Friday morning. James HORNE said I am a soldier on leave I belong to the Royal Artillery; the last time I saw the deceased was on Friday morning about 7 o’clock on a punt going up to Waipakaka; when we got to Walker’s, at Aramaho, the deceased and I went ashore; I got a bottle of rum and we went aboard again, we then started up the river; we had got about thirty chains from Walker’s; Conroy said, boys, we’ll have a jolly dinner to-day. Conroy was at the bow of the boat; I was lighting my pipe, and had my back to him, when I heard a splash in the water; I rose to my feet, and saw Conroy about the length of the punt behind we then tried to back the punt, but he drifted faster than we could in about two minutes he went down with his arms up.

Knowledge of Angels – book review

Knowledge of Angels, by Jill Paton Walsh

A story with such a title, set in medieval times on a Mediterranean island with a wolf child and written by Jill Paton Walsh – I was smitten before I started reading.

Paton Walsh writes with the beautiful clarity of the best English writers for children, with clear simple phrasing, elegantly expressed ideas and a compelling other-worldliness. You dive into her books and are submerged.

This is an adults’ book – I think I read it first in my late teens and found it quite disturbing, but have re-read it often since and find the reading a vivid experience. I recently walked on the rocky shores of just such a place as this is set and recognised the world she describes: the monastery with the orange grove and the goats on the mountains and everywhere the view of the “hazy dazzle” of the sea.

The question that underlies the story is this: if a child has no human contact – raised by wolves in this case – will she come to recognise God instinctively?

The enigmatic Palinor “falls in” from an unseen ship and swims ashore. He claims to come from an island no one knows and the local prefect tells him must register as a visiting Christian, Saracen or a Jew.  He claims to have no religion, so is locked up. “A man of no religion might do anything.”

As a heretic, he is condemned to death unless the gentle scholar Beneditx can convert him. The men read and talk and discuss proofs of God but Palinor is not convinced and  Beneditx eventually questions own beliefs.  Palinor’s last hope to escape death lies with the child rescued from wolves on the mountain.

As an experiment, Amara the wolf child is kept in strict confinement at a monastery, where she is taught to speak but there is no mention of God.

If she discovers God on her own, this is proof that everyone is born with knowledge of divinity. If she has no concept of God, this proves that religion is not innate and must be taught, and therefore a man, like Palinor, who has never been educated in God is not guilty of turning away from God, but pitiable and ripe for redemption.

An Inquisitor from Rome arrives, hell bent on burning heretics at the stake.

God certainly moves in mysterious ways.

 

Not Forgetting the Whale – book review

Not Forgetting the Whale, by John Ironmonger

This is my “go to” book when someone asks for a good read. It’s light and lively, a good tale, with a back story that dives deeper than the whale.

Apparently there are three, three letter words that can bring down civilisation.

War. Oil. Flu.

Not Forgetting the Whale, by John Ironmonger, tells the story of Joe, a young, clever analyst who uses modelling to predict the coming of the third – a flu with the destructive force of a plague, capable of disrupting the world and tipping us into apocolypse.

It’s pretty big stuff for a story set in a little town in Cornwall, with nicely recognisable characters, networks of romance and relationships, and a visiting whale (cue book club discussions on symbolism, metaphor and allegory).

In the growing disaster as the fragile connections that underpin our world collapse, the town becomes an Ark as Joe and the locals close the borders and struggle to survive.

Joe’s modelling predicts that if Oil, War or Flu should bring us down, total collapse is inevitable.  But his clever computer, which analyses economics, supply chains, political activity and journalist reporting world wide, has missed the human factor.

Give this book to the pessimists in your life.

 

Camp fire story

A shaggy dog story by Tristan Bayliss

Stories are the best way to entertain the kids around a camp fire, and they need to be adaptably long, shaggy, and with a structure that makes them easy to remember.

Last week, rafting and camping on the side of the Mohaka river, our storyteller had a group of kids enraptured by The Ballard of Henry Tidwell, the last man to suffer the death penalty in New Zealand. (Only he wasn’t, I found out later.)

I asked him how he did it and here is his advice.

When I tell a very long shaggy dog story, people ask how it is possible to remember so many details, and often dismiss it as impossible for themselves. The truth is, if you follow these few simple tips, anyone can (and should) tell a long and complex story to entertain friends and family around those campfires or on long trips. For the purposes of explanation I have included a very long story, The Ballard of Henry Tidswell, a version of which  was told recently on a camping trip.

  1.     Punchline  

The shaggy dog story starts with the ending, with an idea of a pun, or a joke. It doesn’t have to be uproarious, as the whole point of this sort of story is the journey to get there. In some ways, an ending that makes your audience groan rather than laugh is a good result. In this example it started with an old joke around the ambiguous meanings of the term ‘conductor’.

  1.   Structures

This is the most important rule for successfully telling a longer story. This is the skeleton that you hang the story on, and what makes the whole thing possible to remember and achieve. The structures can be familiar pictures or simple sequences, with a finite pattern or infinitely expandable. The example story is full of different structures, some obvious, some less:

  • Henry keeps one penny for each shilling, then 2, then 3 etc. For the purposes of this story, it finished at 4, but could easily have expanded to 12
  • The time between Mary’s spending sprees halves each time, first 2 months, then 1 month, 2 weeks, 1 week etc. Also the cost of each purchase rises; first a shilling a week, then 2, then 3 etc. These structures build tension by creating the sense of rapidly approaching disaster
  • Each time Mary makes a deal, she gets a new dress of a different colour, and the sequence is red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Not only is it easy to remember the rainbow, but the darkening end of the spectrum matches the story as it darkens towards the end
  1. Visual Associations

This technique is what enables you to include the richness of detail which makes a good story. It requires developing a pictorial thinking and memory, which is far richer and more effective than a language or conceptual one. Make a visual picture of each scene, and when it comes to that point in the story, simply recall the picture in your mind’s eye and describe what you see. It will be different each time as you forget some things and include others, but it will be more alive and the amount of detail possible will be limitless. Also you can include visual themes that are connected to the structures, which aid the memory.

In this story, for example, the things Mary purchases are associated with the colour of her dress, e.g red for Rosie the house help, orange for the copper and brass washing machine, yellow for the yellow curtains and furniture etc.

  1.  Repetition

This also is related to the structures, as you naturally have repeated scenes and dialogues, but if you can focus on a particular catchphrase and repeat this at opportune moments, this is like a little homecoming within the story and can bring great delight to your listeners, especially children. If done well, you can merely suggest the line and the audience will finish it for you. In the example, we have the repetition of “because she was clever with her hands” which has been given subtle variations for the benefit of an older audience. Also the punchline itself has been used as a catchphrase in this story, which rather than lessening its impact as an ending, enhances it, for the listeners have to think twice before realizing it now has a new meaning.

  1.  Characters

These are what bring the humour and life to a story. Give your characters a back story (even if you don’t relate it, but just for your own sake to bring the character alive). Use mannerisms, accents, speech impediments, anything that makes them interesting. The only caution I would place on this is to leave your main protagonist quite plain, as it can be tiring for an audience to listen to a constant put-on voice, and also it allows their imagination to inhabit the character easier if it remains slightly amorphous.

  1. Practice

Lastly, eloquence is not something you are either born with or without. It requires practice to develop, and then constant practice to maintain. Take whatever opportunities you have, the best practice being, of course, telling bedtime stories to your children. Start by memorizing traditional folk tales or fairy tales (practise using your pictorial memory) and telling these without the book there (perhaps by candlelight). This will build up a rich store of phrases, characters and story archetypes which you can use in your own made-up stories later.

Happy storytelling

Read The Ballard of Henry Tidswell, adapted by Tristan Bayliss.

The Wish Child – book review

The Wish Child – by Catherine Chidgey

If you’d asked me what I thought of Catherine Chidley’s The Wish Child as I was reading, I might have been slightly ambivalent. The writing is poetical and descriptive but I had to concentrate to hear the different voices of the characters – Eric, an adopted boy from Poland, Sieglinde from Berlin and a third, unexplained, narrator.

But ask me now I’ve put the book down and and I’ll say: here is a book that needs to be read. The story and the confusion over the shadowy narrator is a slap in the face that haunts me.

The story is set in Germany during WW2 and told through the everyday lives of Sieglinde and Eric’s families. The fact that Sieglinde’s father is employed to cut words like “love” and “truth” out of books is just one strange part of the slowly twisting background of their world. The is an horrific and violent event – and I guess brutality is a byline of every war story – but I felt this was slightly gratuitous.  It feels raw and clumsy in the otherwise gauzy read – maybe that is quite deliberate, but I almost put the book down there.

I’m glad I didn’t, because the poignancy of ending made me go back and read the whole thing again, immediately.