The art of letter writing

Shipwrecks in cross-hatch

I spent a happy day in the Alexander Turnbull Library yesterday researching colonial goings on, and discovered that, in the 1850s, lots happened by letter. Introductions, demands, gossip, flirtations. News of shipwrecks and love wrecks and conflicts and strife. Thank-yous for gifts, shared notes on botany and invitations to the Governor’s ball.

These were original letters to hold carefully, from Governor and Lady Grey, Governor Fitzroy, colonial secretaries and adventurers and all their various correspondents. I found their loopy writing both marvellous and completely illegible.  There’s a skill or art to deciphering them that I think might require many hours. Luckily, most had transcripts into fuzzy typewritery courier – still a few generations behind the digital.

The Victorians wrote with great sweep and flourish, with confident and well practiced hands. Paper was precious, and yet they had very large writing on small pages, I’m guessing because they were using unwieldy nib pens and ink which needed long continuous strokes.  In order to economise they often cross-hatched, creating intricate designs of patterned penmanship, slanting gracefully across the page one way and another.

Today there seems to be an accepted truth that hand written letters are different to screen or typed letters. Do we believe a hand written love letter carries more love?  I think so. These weren’t love letters I was studying at the library, but there was a spooky intensity in them that I’ve never felt from a transcript. There has been a recent  resurgence in interest in letter writing – in the non-digital generally – but I don’t think the art will come back. These cross-hatched masterpieces are relics of a slower time, and when has a culture reverted to the less convenient?

A day wandering through a collection of 19th Century letters is moving and strangely restorative – it’s like time spent in an art gallery where stories and art come together as a whole.


Elizabeth is missing – book review

Elizabeth is missing, by Emma Healey

Maud is a great hero of mine. She’s an old lady who is losing her marbles, but she clings on to the things she does know for dear life. She remembers things long past, but not yesterday. She’ll set an alarm clocks to remind her of something, but can’t remember why she set it.

I’m not Maud yet. I do remember why I set the alarm clock, but the fact that  I feel I need to set it at all makes we wonder if I’m heading that way.

So here’s a lovely book for a book group of women rolling with a bit of a swagger through their fifties. Watch the hesitation in their eyes as they make their funny wee confessions and giggle. Forgot the name of the actor you watched last night? Bought canned peaches again, although they already form a wall in the cupboard? Swear blind you haven’t seen your husband’s keys and can’t explain how they ended up in your handbag? (Hang on, that last one might just be me…)

Elizabeth is Maud’s dear friend. Maud thinks Elizabeth is missing, but is unable make her concerns clear to her long-suffering daughter, or her carer, or Elizabeth’s difficult son, or the police, the doctor.  Maud is confused about a lot of things, and the way this confusion is handled by Healey is gentle and empathetic. We are inside her head and feeling her frustration, but can also sympathise with the way those around her react to her crumbling reality.

The missing friend obsesses Maud so piercingly because, after the war, her older sister, Sukey, also went missing.  She was never found. We go back fifty years into Maud’s clearer memories, but things get more confusing before all the unravelling begins to reform into something unexpected.

It’s hard to categorise Elizabeth is Missing. It’s a lovely character story and a well described study of a woman’s slide into dementia with all the accompanying frustrations and misunderstandings that many readers will recognise.  It’s also a sharp psychological mystery, and a ripping thriller.  There are lots of different aspects to discuss in Healey’s book (not least that it’s her first novel – how does a woman in her twenties develop such acute observation?) For sure it’s a good pick for a women’s book club if, as I say, the odd senior moment hovers around your periphery.  This will make ’em squirm.

A Gentleman in Moscow – book review

If you enjoyed War & Peace…

This is War & Peace-lite, set over a century later with a different kind of war. And while the original covers a huge sweep of country from Napoleon’s battlefields to the St Petersburg salons, country peasants and the exodus from Moscow, Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow is set entirely within the walls of the Hotel Metropol in Moscow’s Theatre Square.

But there is something distinctly Tolstoyian in our hero, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, charming and urbane, surely a descendant of the more famous Rostovs. He is sent into house arrest by the Bolsheviks and goes willingly, considering the alternative, and for 30 years from 1922 is imprisoned in the hotel, first as an honoured guest and later as a respected waiter. We almost see this as a promotion, so conditioned are we by then to look on the positive side of life.

Rostov witnesses the momentous changes in Russia, not Tolstoy-style through the debate of powerful men and the clash on the battlefields, but in the detail of everyday life in the hotel as he quietly observes the changing guests and procedures. We are left to imagine the mentality of the new regime’s leaders who remove the labels from every bottle in the famous wine cellar so comrades receive a egalitarian pot-luck bottle with each meal. Rostov, connoisseur and master of the wine-food match, merely serves the first bottle that comes to hand.

The backing cast of the story are the workers of the Metropol who are trained for service, impeccably courteous front-of-house and a pack of real characters behind the scenes. Rostov is Rostov, his beautiful manners translate from his aristocratic youth to service without missing a beat.

There are three main women who come into Rostov’s life, each in a different context, and he is loyal, generous and playful in his love for each in a very Rostovian way. The women all have beating hearts.

He’s a lovely man. It’s an elegantly written book. Glib? Yes, perhaps. Open the book in the middle and read a few pages to see if the voice is for you. But don’t be fooled, under the light tone, we are still in 1930’s Russia.  Towles gives a menacing feel for the era, without much “proper” history at all. And the end is sublime.

I finished it and immediately recommended it to friends, particularly, but not exclusively, to those who have re-watched the BBC War & Peace series over and over and can’t quite get enough.

And if you still can’t get enough, Amor Towles writes a Q&A on A Gentleman of Moscow on his website, well worth a read to pick up some little details you may have missed.

I love Charles Dickens

As a tonic for insomnia

I became a Dicken’s fan early on. I remember reading David Copperfield at primary school and I gobbled up Oliver Twist. Pip and his Great Expectations hovered around my teenage years. I probably had a strange view of the world.

The thing I liked best about Dickens were the characters I met, they were nothing like the people I knew in 1970s Wellington.  I would have died for friends like the Artful Dodger and his gang.  They were my imaginary friends and did much more exciting things than the real ones.  And because I was not long out of the fantasy & magic worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth I half believed these people existed. I knew that “Dickensian London” was a real time and place, and I read in that zone between reality and imagination. Where most history probably belongs, anyway.

One of the main advantages of Dickens now is that he’s out of copyright. Yes, you can download the entire works of Dickens onto your kindle for free.  Generally, I don’t download books for free. I like to ensure the authors get paid, but that’s a rant for another time. Dickens doesn’t need my coin any more. I put him in my bag when I’m travelling and now I look forward to that four hour delayed stopover.

I suppose I’ve read Dickens on and off throughout my life. There is no end to the stories, once you’ve read the entire collection you can happily go back and start again – by that time years will have past and the stories will be fresh. They certainly won’t get any more dated.

But here’s the thing. Charles Dickens saved me.

It was when I was living in England, and my children were little, and I was an insomniac. I don’t mean the kind of insomnia when you’re a bit stressed and don’t sleep well for a few nights and whine, I’m so tired.  I’m talking about the deep insomnia that can last for months, when you have no expectation of sleep at all, even though you are in that place that’s deeper than tiredness. Fathoms deeper.

It’s where you wake up at 2am and know that nothing will send you back to sleep. That’s where I was. Of course I drank cocoa, had hot baths, did yoga, said hommmmm for hours. Counted bloody sheep. Sleep wasn’t coming.

If you ever find yourself there, here’s my tip: read Dickens.

I’m not suggesting for a single second that Dickens is soporific.  Quite the reverse. Reading Dickens will not send you to sleep.  He’s thrilling. And anyway, you’re an insomniac. Nothing is going to put you to sleep. You may as well read. At 2am, there’s not a lot else to do.

After a while you’ll find Dickens’ characters will climb in to bed with you.  They become so real, you can anticipate what they are going to do. And then they surprise you, like when a friend you know well does something out of character. The very fact that you can know a fictional character well enough to be surprised by them is a bit creepy.

When you know characters so well, you don’t even need to turn the light on or pick up the book. You can look, wide-eyed into blackness of your black room and you can play with Dickens’ characters, because you’ll know them so well. You can put yourself in the stories with them – you can take Pip in hand and tell him to forget his Great Expectations and go back to the forge, and have Pip look up at you with those big eyes and say “Yes! Yes I will go back. Joe is a good man, I’ll go home.”

Doesn’t happen in the book.

Or pick up a gun and shoot Little Nell – God knows she deserves it – and put her and generations of future readers out of their misery. I’ve done that a few times. BANG! Goodbye Little Nell.  It’s very satisfying at 3am.

I’ve been thanked many times by insomniacs  for that bit of advice – to read Dickens through the night. I know a teacher who received his entire classical education between 2 and 5am.

So if you find yourself falling into an insomnia that might last for months, put a stack of Dickens on your bedside table and pick some characters to romp around in bed with you. You can mix them up. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Inspector Bucket of Bleak House, and I sometimes take him to visit Dombey, to see if he can’t sort out that great bully. He tells Dombey to take note of little Florence: “You’re a sensible man of the world,” he says. “And a sensible man of the world knows the value of an intelligent girl.”

If you want a suggestion on where to start, try here:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” and keep going until you have worked your way through the complete works.  You won’t get any more sleep, but you will spend your nights in excellent company and get out of bed in the morning with a dramatically improved vocabulary.



Economical writing

Why less is more in the writing class

I’ve just been to a short story writing workshop as part of the Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival with Anna Mackenzie and we spent time cutting extraneous words and writing implicitly.  (Or, as I used to say…we spent some time on cutting out all extraneous words from our texts and using explicit writing, rather than spelling everything out. See? It’s working!)

The skill is to imply a thousand word backstory in a short sentence.

Anna shared an example of a perfect economical short story. It’s said that Ernest Hemingway wrote this as a challenge. While lunching with friends, he bet he could craft a short story in six words. He wrote it on his napkin, passed it around the table, and deservedly collected his $10 winnings.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

It reminds me of the shortest poem ever written, called Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes (aka Fleas) by American poet and humourist Strictland Gillilan.

Had ’em

So the challenge is set. I’m not going to get my 100,000 word novel down to six words or a two line poem, but I’ve taken up the red pen. Less is more.

The Sea – book review

The Sea, by John Banville

I’m a bit ambivalent about John Banville’s The Sea. I wish he’d put a plot in.

Instead, there are pages full of wistfully charming descriptions and heavily clever observations in search of something to do with themselves.

I got pretty impatient with it. There are characters, but other than the grieving narrator it’s hard to get a handle on them. It turns out it’s not really the dead wife who drives the narrative but a pair of twins our man met on a youthful holiday, or perhaps another child who I eventually figured out wasn’t a child but the nanny who turns into a later character to tie it all together, who wasn’t in love with the father but the mother and was there when the twins walked into the sea, not quite sure why – but I’ve lost you.

It’s easily done.  Even if you went back to figure it all out I’m not sure it would get any more interesting.

The thing that is interesting, that I discovered only after I’d finished it and gone – meh – is that it won the Man Booker Prize in 2005. It was a controversial choice, up against Zadie Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro, Juilan Barnes.  Banville himself implied it was a victory for high art over slick popularism. He comes across, like his character, as a bit of a prat.

But this acknowledgement of literary merit perhaps is the reason for my ambivalence and its inclusion in my list of “good reads for book clubs”. I do like a well hung sentence and I did find myself starting to enjoy snippets very much before the story wandered off somewhere else. So I guess I understand why the Booker judges found the novel classy; though classier than Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go?  Get your book club to read both and ask yourselves what those judges were drinking!

Then again, if you’re an educated, white, middle class bloke and you have a quiet afternoon in front of you with no expectations of wild adventure or a ripping yarn and are in the mood to finding poignancy in very good prose, this thoughtful, old-fashioned read will suit you well.




The Road – book review

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

I’m going out on a limb recommending this one.

I’ve promised here only to review books I love, and no one can love The Road. It’s grim. I had bad dreams for a week.

It’s grim in the way only Cormac McCarthy can be with his spare dialogue and relentlessly bleak landscapes. The cover is of a grey road heading into the grey distance under grey skies and surrounded by dead trees, cold and hostile. This is the book.

Here’s the opening:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.

It doesn’t get any cheerier.

But I suggest it as a good read for book clubs because sometimes a bit of raw dystopia is a change from character-full, plot-twisty, complicated, clever books. On the face of it, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is not complicated. The complications are all in the subtext.  You can analyse the subtext for hours but you won’t find any answers in the book, and this is why I think it opens up some provoking discussions. You just need to ask two questions and the debate will outlast the wine and cheese: What do you think happened? What will happen?

All the stuff has happened in the past and you are confronted with the here and now, a man and a boy walking down a road in the fallout. It feels utterly, utterly hopeless. And yet, they walk.

That’s about it.

Don’t read it if you’re feeling miserable.

Good luck.


Mr Peacock’s Possessions – book review

Mr Peacock’s possessions, by Lydia Syson

Lydia Syson’s Mr Peacock’s Possessions sets the characters and the scene slowly – you need to understand the background before you can follow the story. So don’t be impatient, sit quietly as the curious and impulsive Kalala introduces you to his life in the Pacific, his brother, the pastor Solomona, and their small group of god fearing men who are shipped to an island where a white man and his family are struggling to settle.

Lizzie’s story comes next, she tells of family life on an isolated island, the difficulties faced by her mother and many children as they live castaway style, and the struggles of her delicate older brother, who is a disappointment to their very physical and driven father. Lizzie is her father’s favourite and she loves him unreservedly. Until she has to confront a truth that questions all she believes of him.

The family are swindled by a ship’s captain, they suffer rats and weevils and have some small successes, but there is an undercurrent of suspense growing. There are bones on the island, pigs’ bones, says Mr Peacock, as he hastily buries them.  Kalala and the Islanders arrive, Lizzie’s brother goes missing and they all spread out over the island to search for him.

Mr Peacock is a possessive man. Lydia Syson makes his frustrations seem understandable in the rough and rugged man’s world scattered around the very edges of Victoria’s imperial petticoats. Peacock had struggled for years, as many did, slowly realising through constant failures that the dream of owning colonial land was not a promise for everyone. He owned his wife and his children and when the opportunity came to buy and island he owned that, too.  Our main story begins when he brings in his “Kanaka boys,” to work his land and gradually young Lizzie and the rest of the family begin to question her father’s possessive attitudes.

Kalala and the Islanders’ story merges with Lizzie’s and a story that has gone before them on the island, and the mystery of the missing brother hangs over them all.

The reading just gets better and better and the story becomes utterly compelling.  My advice is to set aside a good chunk of time when you get near the end, there are some things that need to be finished.

Mr Peacock’s Possessions is a terrific book for a book club read, there are lots of questions around possessiveness and ownership, success and failure, compassion. You can discuss colonial attitudes to women, race, land, the power of religion. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying Monday Island, where the Peacock’s live, is in fact Raoul Island in the Kermadecs, and now a marine reserve and a place of extraordinary biodiversity. It featured on the migration route for early Pacific voyagers and for those of us who love islands it has a fascinating history all of its own.

Head’s up for my book club – this one is my next choice.


The Captive Wife – book review

The captive wife, by Fiona Kidman

This is a whale of a tale set in the days when a whaler could take a child bride to a remote New Zealand whaling station – when marauding war parties, cannibalism and shipwreck were common and life was fragile – and he could wonder why it all went so wrong.

Fiona Kidman’s The captive wife is a real New Zealand legend.   Jackie Guard was 40 when he married the spunky 14 year old Betty and took her from the Garrison town of Sydney to the whalers’ den of Te Awaiti in the Malborough Sounds.  Theirs is a real history and journals and letters of the time often mention them, particularly after the events recounted in this book that turn Betty into a bit of a celebrity.

Of course things often do go wrong, in a number of ways, but the main action of the story is based on a shipwreck when the Guards are returning to the station after a trip to Sydney and are smashed up on the Taranaki Coast. This is in 1834, before Governor Hobson and the Wakefields, before any kind of systematic colonisation of New Zealand or any semblance of British law, when the only force driving the foreigners in the country was exploitation.  The castaways are attacked, many killed and Betty and her children are captured by the Ngāti Ruanui Māori.

Jacky Guard is released to bring a ransom, but returns four months later on the Royal Navy’s man-o’-war Alligator from Sydney and a captain hell bent on teaching the Māori a lesson. This is England’s first armed conflict with Māori, and we are still learning from the lesson today. 

I guess you want to know what happened to Betty in those four months she spent in captivity, the book is called the captive wife, after all.  Well, first she witnessed the cannibalism of her murdered crewmen. And then she was struck by a tomahawk, which was deflected by a comb in her hair (so the legend goes, and you can view both the comb and Jacky Guard’s pistol at Te Papa) then her infant son was taken from her to be trained in Māori ways. And then … well, things changed.  She fell under the protection of a chief called Oaoiti who was kind to her and a man in extreme contrast to her rather nasty husband Jacky…

The story starts, like most stories of the time, with a male voice, and Jackie is wondering where he can lay his poker. But soon we hear Betty’s voice and female viewpoint, and later she tells her story to an older, sympathetic friend. I really like the duality of this, she and Jackie have very different eyes on the same world.

The research Fiona Kidman has done for this book is spanking and I never doubt that the fictionalised parts could well have happened in that time and place, though the telling of the story is often deliberately one-sided and told by unreliable, limited or misunderstood narrators.  The complexity of the telling sure make this a great read and I highly recommend it for an intelligent slap of New Zealand’s wild history.

If  The captive wife is a suggestion for a book club read, Elizabeth Welsh of Auckland University gives an excellent academic summary review on the themes, metaphors and perspectives here: The captive wife. But do read the book first.

The Naturalist – book review

The naturalist, by Thom Conroy (more fan fiction than book review!)

I feel a bit cheeky writing a review of Thom Conroy because he is a teacher of writing and I am a student (different institutions and I’ve never met him), but also because he’s writing about my blokes. Or I’m writing about his.

It’s something you do need to come to terms with, when you write historical fiction, that your characters are not, in fact, your blokes. Thom Conroy’s book, The Naturalist, is the story of Ernst Dieffenbach, who was a member of the New Zealand Company’s 1839 colonial expedition.  He sailed on the Tory with The Colonel and Jerningham Wakefield, Charles Heaphy, Captain Chaffers and their gang.

They’re all historical characters (and my goodness, they are characters) and Thom Conroy has written a wonderful fictional account of how they all got along together. Which is not very well, most of the time, except for the rather gracious Charles Heaphy, who got along with everybody.

I’m a student this year, of creative writing, and I’m writing a book about the above mentioned Jerningham Wakefield, one of the more outrageous characters in Conroy’s tale. I have my first draft of 100,000 words and Jerningham has romped through them, heartily pissing off Dieffenbach, the Colonel, Captain Chaffers and even the mild mannered Heaphy. (No one, anywhere, has ever written a bad word about Heaphy. He’s one of God’s good men, everyone says so, and every story needs one good man.)

But I am writing about Jerningham and I love him very much, in the way a mother loves her son; with indulgence and exasperation and a hope that he will, one day, grow out of the booze.  Conroy doesn’t love him so much. I’m glad I wrote my book before reading Conroy’s, because I formed my judgement first and when you meet a new bloke, first impressions count.

They’re up for grabs, these characters, and I’m starting to realise that using historical people in a novel is a bit like writing fan fiction.  There’s no copyright, they’re been dead well over 100 years and any author can take them anywhere.  Dieffenbach, Jerningham, Heaphy and co. all wrote compelling journals so there is plenty of source material, and once you get gripped by the Victorian character of these extraordinary men a kind of magic takes place – they come alive, start arguing with one another and acting up.  I know Jerningham comes down at night and raids my booze cupboard.

Thank you, Thom Conroy. Reading The Naturalist makes me feel we’ve met through mutual friends, and you’ve told me a story about them in a new way, and added to my understanding of the lives of these tenacious, complex men.

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