Of roses and turkish delight

FullSizeRender (3)The first thing anyone does on receiving a bouquet of roses is to bury their face in them to breathe in the scent.  Beautiful roses with minimal scent are pure anticlimax. Pierre de Ronsard, I’m taking to you!

Nahema might well be accused of showing off at this time of year. But what might be quite an ordinary pale pink prettiness is lifted into the stratosphere of rose-y adoration by its strong scent, swooningly redolent of turkish delight.

Of all the roses available, Parfumier Guerlain created a perfume in 1979 named after this one which is still available today.  Guerlain records that the floral oriental fragrance was “inspired by the legend of a sultan who had twin daughters, the gentle and obedient Mahane and the fiery and passionate Nahéma. Built predominantly around rose notes, Nahéma was an early fragrance to feature damascones, a set of newly discovered aromachemicals with a profound fruity-rose character.”

This is Nahema’s first year in my garden.  Often roses flower well in the first year and then decline left unsprayed in Auckland’s humid climate.  Time will tell whether Nahema is up up to an organic mulch, water, squash aphids routine to earn a permanent place.  So far I am in thrall to its pretty and scented delights.

A wet and windy walk on Waiheke


This gallery contains 24 photos.

Waiheke locals often refer smugly to their microclimate which means that even when Auckland is cloaked in damp clouds, just a short ferry ride away, the Waihetians are often basking in warm sunlight. But sometimes even Waiheke succumbs to a fit of the dismals, and once you’ve been to the Cinema, Solar Cafe and the video shop you’ve exhausted most of the possibilities, especially those which won’t cost a bomb with three kids in tow. When tempers start to fray, the only answer is to man up, rug up and get out into the wet and windy weather. Fortunately although the weather may be rough, it generally isn’t very cold.  And … Continue reading

The family bach

15 April 14 HekeruaOften in New Zealand we hear people referring fondly to their family bach, a little house near the sea to which they would return each summer, building up a pleasant store of memories and shared deprivations, year after year as they grew up.  And while we had a fairly privileged childhood which featured plenty of love and fun, a bach wasn’t part of my family culture until recently.

Then a few years ago, my parents found a steep, bushclad and inaccessible section at Hekerua Bay on Waiheke Island, a cleansing forty five minute ferry ride from Auckland. Never ones to back down on a challenge, the only answer was to build a house on it, a saga which deserves its own book.  The result was a very comfortable tree house, nestled in the bush above a small rocky cove.

tartan pipiFor lucky us it makes a very welcoming retreat not too far from where we live.  Still inaccessible by road, it requires a walk in down a long steep zig zag and a breath defying slog up wooden steps dragging your volumes of planned reading and bottles of wine.  As you can imagine, it was with great joy that we moved beyond the stage of bulky nappies and baby paraphernalia.

The advantage of a walk in, is that once there, we don’t want to leave.  We settle in.  We read, we walk, we swim, we kayak around the headland for a samosa from the Four Square at Little Oneroa.

Dried flax flower

It has to be admitted that the inter-generational holiday will require some flexibility and tolerance on all sides, especially when your family features three lively, and loud boys, with not a lot of space around the house to run around.    Full credit to my parents for 1. continuing to invite us, and, 2. putting up with the sheer force of energy, volume and confrontation that is our offspring.  But sometimes things will spiral upwards and that’s when we know that, rain or shine, it’s time to get outside.

For my children, Hekerua Bay has become their happy place.  It’s where they have spent endless hours on the pebbly beach, collected treasures, and walked miles (ok, sometimes against their will). They’ve developed strength, observation and independence while kayaking around the coastline and sea channels around us. Surrounded by native bush and water wildlife they have learned to confidently spot and identify native birds and trees and occasionally large marine mammals such as seals and orca.

In Maori ‘Hekerua’ means Double Bay.  For us it means double happy.

Hunting and gathering – family time

Dried flax flowerFlax flower: 100 Day project #11

This dried flax flower was found on a walk from Hekerua Bay around the cliff to Little Oneroa and then up to ‘Big’ Oneroa for a pie.  After a luxurious and enjoyable morning lolling about in our PJs we put on our jackets and went for a walk in the blustery air.  We even took Hector, in an inclusive ‘no man or poodle left behind’ spirit.  Although at thirteen, he is half blind, and we took a bag as well in case we had to carry him.  He was overjoyed and capered about on the beach like an old puppy, taking some larger dogs to task for being large and being dogs, and making it home with his dignity and a limp.

We were so lazy and late leaving the house that by the time we got to our destination only the sausage rolls and more exotic pie flavours were available from the coffee bar  Thai chicken anyone? Alright then.

En route, the boys found many small brightly coloured and patterned objects of interest to support the painting project, including this flax flower which is so beloved by the tui when it is still plump and ripe.  It’s really fun to see how involved the children have become, with quite strong opinions of their favourites and which painting should go up next.  Something of a relief too, to now that I’m not likely to run out of subjects with them around.

When I lived in France in the mid nineties, I worked with a Dutch girl who generously opened her family holiday home to me.  It was close to Orleans and was called “La Pomme, or ‘the apple’ for the small orchard in which it stood.  Mariet and Charles-Henri were married from the chateau nearby and had a lengthy post-match celebration in this orchard, at which half the guests (male) spent with one ear attuned to the broadcast of the France/NZ Rugby world Cup game (as you might guess, it didn’t end well for us).

Hunting traditions ran strongly in Charles-Henri’s family and in Autumn the gentlemen, for that is what they were, would dress up for the job and stride off to take part in the annual chasse.  At the end of the hunt they would display their catch in a neatly arranged square tableau, standing behind to mark the occasion with their photograph.

tableauWhen we returned from our our walk on Saturday I couldn’t help but arrange our finds in a tableau on the bench.

These habits of hunting and gathering run deeper than we know.

Feeling crabby? Time to get away

crab pincer closeCrab pincer: 100 Days Project #10

It’s always delicious, that feeling of getting away.  And luckily in Auckland, it isn’t that hard.  Thirty minutes’ drive will get you to a patch of green or blue you can call your own for a short time.  Somehow it’s even more refreshing when you get to go by boat.  Everyday stresses and cares are tossed to the wind, carried by the gulls and churned behind you in the wake of the car ferry as you literally leave the city behind.

On the Waiheke passenger ferry, cardsharp commuters mingle with students, fascinator-wearing wedding guests, anoraks and hardout alternative lifestylers for a 45 minute journey to another place.  Friendships are struck up over mongrels and labradoodles alike on the back deck and there’s always a feeling of freshness and transition.

So, imagine one day if your parents were to say to you: ‘We’ve found the perfect Waiheke section to build our bach at last!. It’s steep, covered in bush, inaccessible by road and requires a 10 minute walk-in by a steep zigzag track!’ Naturally the only possible response is ‘fantastic!’.  Not everybody has the good fortune to have parents with a house near the beach, and it isn’t something to take for granted.

Now that we have three children who can walk, talk, swim, and (theoretically) hang up their own towels, the magic of this house nestled among the trees become more evident with every visit.  They can trot down to the beach, through the flax, past the serried ranks of orange sea kayaks and aluminium dinghies, all on their own now.   They know about lifejackets and how to mess about in boats. They can spend long hours ignoring sunscreen advice and finding beach treasures such as the crab pincer above.

Their childhood memories are being formed there.  For our eldest, this is the spot he thinks of when asked to picture his ‘happy place’.

Here, we get to create our own traditions, such as ‘Grandad tries to sneak out on his own for the paper‘, ‘breadmaking one-upmanship‘ and the time-honoured ‘we kayak to get a samosa‘.  Nobody, but nobody, will spend longer in the water with our boys than their Grandma, and they get the chance to pick beans still sun-warm from the row with their Grandad.

I think that like a lot of parents, our jobs have often gotten the better part of us, first in our own business and then as part of a larger company. Our children pay the price for that.  The small distance between our home and Hekerua Bay allows us to reframe and refocus.  We need to do that a lot more.  Thanks Mum and Dad. x


Feijoa frenzy, and a poem (sorry about that)

FeijoaFeijoa: 100 Day Project #9

One of the things we miss when we live overseas, as so many of us do, is the Feijoa, that love-it-or-hate-it Brazilian native which we have clasped to our hearts as our very own.

The eating experience is not easy to describe.  It has a strong perfume, a granular texture and an almost jellyish centre when ripe.  The taste gives rise to its other name, the ‘Pineapple guava’

The feijoa doesn’t travel well and as a result it’s a delicacy best enjoyed on the spot armed with a Swiss Army knife, teaspoon and sticky fingers.

Feijoas freeze pretty well, though they do go a little brown, so it is possible to enjoy them throughout the year in crumbles, cakes and fruit sponges.  At my friend Matt’s house they get made into spiffy turnovers.  Another friend (Dr) Jane pointed me to this excellent blog resource for feijoa lovers which includes a fantastic Peter Gordon roasted Feijoa chutney which you do not even have to peel or scoop out the feijoas!  True bonus!

Most of us with a feijoa tree in the backyard know the delight of the start of the season, and the inter-household bartering which goes on.  After a period the massive abundance can start to feel a little onerous, leading to surprisingly profitable, if short-lived, roadside stalls and shopping bags hauled into office lunchrooms.  That feeling inspired this poem.

The feijoas

The first resounding plop

is feted by all,

fought over and devoured,

still hard and sour,

by the victor.

Then a thudding,

steadily increasing in tempo,

A green inundation.

Like sorceror’s apprentices,

we press our abundance

into lunches, crumbles, jars

and our neighbours’ hands.

Silent in reproach,

the invaders occupy the grass,

softening and slippery,

Until the lawnmower relieves us

of our embarrassment.

Heart of oak

Oak Leaf horizOak Leaf: 100 Days project #7

Over several years my commute required me to drive along Stanley Street, over the motorway, through the ongoing roadworks and down past the University.  Along with the tall avenue of overarching plane trees on that stretch, there are several very old oaks.  One in particular stands sentinel over the Jewish cemetery and the old brick public convenience by Grafton Bridge.

In a country dominated by evergreens, the foliage of these leafy giants defines the season.  When I see the oak branches brandishing clutches of soft, fresh new leaves in lime green, I feel a sudden lightening of spirits and I understand at an elemental level that spring has arrived.

Green Man

Green Man

There is a compelling quality to the oak tree.  The lobed shape of its leaves, the strength and arrangement of its branches, the fascinating acorns with their tiny cupped hats.  Core of many a myth and legend, the oak speaks to the pagan Green Man, to Robin Hood, clandestine meetings and Enid Blyton.

Being both beautiful and useful, the oak must surely be the epitome of William Morris‘s timeless ‘arts and crafts’ Englishness.  However, both the symbolism and timber of genus Quercus are much older and predominate in the history of shipbuilding, military strength, endurance and civic honour for more than one nation.

In a world where artisanal style is increasingly ‘referenced’ by high fashion designers, even fashionistas such as Karen Walker have taken to incorporating the imagery of oak leaves and acorns into her work.  While any self respecting magpie would swoop right on in there, that baublesque shininess just doesn’t seem quite right somehow.

Is my steadfast affection for the oak tree disloyal, unpatriotic?  It isn’t a native species, after all.  Is this simply the perpetuation of the same deep-seated cultural colonial imprint which had my father singing ‘Heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men at Southland Boys High in Invercargill in the 1950s?  Certainly, the sight of these leaves recalls family trips to the Christchurch Botanical Gardens (where the first oak was planted in 1863) to walk, and identify Scarlet Oaks, Pin Oaks and to punch the slightly forgiving trunk of the Cork Oak.

Is it rather some kind of inherited soul memory?  All I know is that despite the surprising foreignness of England in arriving for the first time, I saw the softness of the trees, and something in me relaxed and luxuriated.





A fraction too much fiction? – Auckland Writers and Readers Week 2013

Our house is occupied by books.  They stand to attention on shelves and bookcases while reinforcements tower and list in piles on floor and sAWWF2013ide tables.  Once while learning to walk, our middle son was trapped for some minutes under a motherlode of books he tipped from a nightstand.  Books come to us as presents, via recommendation, in travelling, by inheritance, from the library, under cover of darkness, by gift, by loan and in error.

Although my husband and I both adore books, they are almost never the same books.  A Venn diagram showing the overlap between our collections, would form the smallest conceivable wedge, graced only by Sara Wheeler’s  Terra Incognita and a copy of A Suitable Boy I gave him before I came to know better.

Further investigation reveals that while his side is almost entirely history and non-fiction, mine is exclusively fiction with a little domestic how-to thrown in, around garden and craft.   Once I might have felt a little apologetic about the sheer gender based cliché of this.  Should I not be more interested in the bigger issues?  I could argue for the finding of truth in fiction and that the smaller issues are, in reality, the big ones.  But in truth, for me one of the advantages of growing up is the ability to drop the ‘ought to’ from your precious free time and focus on what you really love.

And as it happened, our Jack Spratt style literary taste division worked a treat for us at our favourite event of the year, the thoughtfully curated Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

Highly synchronised tag-team parenting allowed me a wonderfully childfree chance to hear the irrepressible Glaswegian poet and novelist, Jackie Kay.  The opportunity to sit and bask in poetry and emotion for a few quiet moments is a very rare kind of bliss.  Thankfully there were also others in the audience simultaneously laughing and wiping their eyes.  Jackie is remarkable for her humour, her humanity and her beautiful and deceptively simple use of language.  As I sat there a poem sprang unbidden, almost fully formed to mind, for the first time in years.  What a gift.

At the end of the session, I raced whippet-like up the stairs to take the children so my history buff could grill historian Max Hastings on whether he felt the Japanese withdrawal from World War Two was due primarily to the bombing of Hiroshima or the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, (the latter apparently).

Rather thrillingly, when asked about UK spin doctor Alistair Campbell and their famous Youtube disagreement Max Hastings replied robustly “I don’t pretend to hate Alistair Campbell, I do hate him.”

Kate Atkinson, author of Behind the Scenes at the Museum and lately, Life After Life is so beloved she filled the entire main Auditorium of the Aotea Centre.  So some 2000 of us leaned forward in our seats, to hear the pearls of wisdom drop from the tongue of the woman who invented policeman turned private investigator Jackson Brodie.  Often witty, and somehow steely, she embodied the cool articulate Englishwoman.  Much of the discussion was given to subtle indications of class, in a way which felt quite obscure, even alienating to this New Zealander. I was left feeling that I had heard from somebody of a fierce and focused intelligence, with charm but also something of an edge and perhaps someone I wouldn’t care to fall out with.

Cricket obsessive Gideon Haigh came to tout his massive doorstop history of The office with enormous humour and intelligence but he was at his most compelling during his seven minute slot during the gala evening where he was one of eight writers chosen to tell a true personal story on the theme of  ‘an open book’.  He told the story of the last of the backstreet abortionists in Melbourne in the fifties, a man so chilling and controlling that his daughter did not want her story told, even forty years after the last time she had seen him.

General slackness (failing to book a ticket) meant I missed Rosemary McLeod’s session on domestic embroidery.  However such is the joy of the festival that I was able to buy a ticket to another session on the spot and feel as if I may have ended up in the right place after all. Scarlett Thomas, author of ‘The End of Mr Y’, offered much practical advice, advising writers to begin their character development by identifying their overwhelming need and central motivation in life.

If any clear theme emerged from this happy conversation cloud, for me it was the elusive concept of ‘voice’, that unique and distinctive character in an individual’s writing.  Kate Atkinson initially rubbished the idea of voice as ‘just something people say’ until she suddenly found herself writing in a certain way and realized she had found it.   Certainly writers such as Jackie Kay have a clear and unmistakeable authenticity which comes through in their writing.  They don’t sound like they are trying to be anything or anybody else.  Now that’s inspiring.

Last year I attended the festival for the first time and attended three sessions.  I came away buzzing with new thoughts and inspiration.  This year I attended six sessions and came home with an unexpected poem which passed the overnight test, and a creative spurring-on.  Next year, I may just have to take my sleeping bag.

I wouldn’t miss it for the world.