Photo from

I remember the drip of water into water. Or perhaps I’m making that up, since it is such an inevitable feature of any scene involving a cave in film? It’s hard to know how much I have mentally rewritten at this distance of years. But anyway, the drips, the hush falling on the chattering group as our boat slipped through water into the dark, even our pompous Maori guide (“Now we will reveal the hidden wonders of Waitomo”) silent for the moment – these are in my memory. And then the thousand lights of the glowworms starring the roof, as though the sky had been buried in New Zealand. I thought about chthonic deities, the boat of Charon crossing to the underworld, the ships of the dead in Egyptian tombs, the mystical death and rebirth of the sun-god. I thought about the agonisingly patient calcite drip of the stalactites and about how the glowworms were carnivorous and their lights meant they wanted to lure and eat something. I thought that if I unbuttoned your fly and slipped in a hand probably no-one but you would notice. But I didn’t do it. In retrospect, it was a turning point.

Continue reading “Glow”


Things to Do with Moonlight

By Allen Curnow

Holy Week already and the moon
still gibbous, cutting it fine
for the full before Jesus rises,
and imaginably gold
and swollen in the humid heaven.

First, second and last quarters
dated and done with now,
the moon pulls a face, a profane
gold gibbous and loose on the night.

Hot cross buns were never like this.
the paschal configurations
and prefigurations could never have
nailed the moon down
to the bloody triangle on the hill.

By the spillage of light the sea told
the cliff precisely where to mark
the smallest hour when I woke
and went out to piss
thankfully, and thought of Descartes,

most thoughtful and doubtful pisser,
who between that humid light
and dark of his mind discerned
nothing but his thoughts
e. & o.e. as credible, and himself

because he had thought them, his body
had a soul, his soul had a body
an altogether different matter,
and that made two of him
very singularly plural, ergo

sum couldn’t be sumus. He thought
deeply and came up with a solution
of blood in spirit, holy adhesive,
God, singular sum
best bond for body and soul.

And the height of the night being humid,
thoickedned with autumn starlight
to the needed density and the sea
grumbling in the west,
something visceral took shape of an idea,

a numen, a psych, a soul,
a self, a cogitation squirmed
squirmed, somebody standing there
broke wind like a man
whose mind was on other things.

His back to me and black
against the gibbous gold
of the godless moon, still blinking
the liturgical full,
something stuck its ground like a man

in a posture of pissing out of doors,
thankfully by moonlight, thinking
of pissing, experiencing the pleasure
and the pleasure of thinking
of pissing, hearing also the sea’s

habitual grumble. Descartes?
I queried, knowing perfectly well it was.
And he to me, Your Karekare doppelgänger
travesties me no worse
than the bodily tissue I sloughed in Stockholm–

no wonder I caught my death
teaching snow queen Christine,
surely as her midnights outglittered
my sharpest certainties
an icicle must pierce my lungs

(at five one midwinter morning,
the hour she appointed for philosophy
by frozen sea, freezing porches)
and my zeroed extension
wait there for the awful joyful thaw.

There’s the customary stone I’m sure,
with customary lie incised,
the truth being I exist here thinking,
this mild March night.
As for the thought, you’re welcome.

No less true it was I, meaning me,
not he that was physically present
pissing, and metaphysically
minding the sepulchre
not to be opened till after the full moon.

Cogito. I borrowed his knife
to cut my throat and thoughtfully
saw the blood soaking the singular
gold humid night.
Ergo sum. Having relieved myself

of that small matter on my mind,
I leaned lighter on my pillow
for a gibbous moon, a philosopher’s
finger on his cock,
and a comfortable grumble of the sea.

(From: Allen Curnow (1979) An Incorrigible Music: A sequence of poems. Auckland University Press.)

This poem is the place I first encountered the word ‘gibbous’. It comes up so often in the poem I had to go look it up.

Rereading the poem now, I notice that there’s an Easter element to it that I had completely blanked out. My interest in it has always been in the reference to Descartes and the Cartesian thesis that we are essentially thinking beings and that we know the mind with more certainty than we know the body. The poem is a little childish really. It’s easy to ridicule someone by picturing them going to the toilet. It could be a form of ad hominem, perhaps, suggesting that if Descartes had been elderly and more taken up with the physical necessities of going to the toilet, he might have not have postulated a fundamental and unbridgeable gulf between the mental and the physical sides of a person.

It is completely question-begging, of course. If Descartes is right, and we are disembodied minds, it would be entirely possible for the mind to undergo a series of experiences exactly as if of getting up in the middle of the night to go outside and piss, so the fact that Curnow experiences that does nothing to show the metaphysical picture developed by Descartes is false. But I can’t help agreeing with Curnow that, psychologically speaking, he probably wouldn’t have had the thoughts he had, if his body had been more unreliable. Women have messy bodies. Could a woman have given us the Cartesian meditations? (Of course, the idea is pretty improbable to begin with. The chances of anyone coming up with it is pretty hard to define but surely vanishingly small. So it probably doesn’t make it substantially less likely to have come from a woman).


Dot writes: I asked Hugh what he liked most about New Zealand and he replied “Uncle Mat.” I asked him on a different occasion and he said “eating crisps”, but let’s stay with the first answer for the moment, because sunshine, greenery, leisure, wine, swimming, good food, presents, Otorohanga Kiwi House, beaches, shopping and hot tubs are all very well, but there’s nothing quite like the constant company of friends and family.

Back row: Mat holding Hannah, Ken, Ken’s dad; middle row: Auntie Sue, Ken’s mum, Jessie, Dot; front: familiar rascals. (Btw, click on the pictures for bigger versions.)

Mat and baby Hannah. Hannah’s mood rather less festive than her hat

Jessie and Hannah with Frank

Hugh has a story with Auntie Sue

A walk around Virginia Lake, Wanganui, with Ken’s mum

Reunion of flatmates: Ken with his friends Gareth and Lee

Jessie and baby Hannah

Murray with his son and grandsons – for posterity

Circ-imbibing New Zealand in 34 varieties of beer or so

Ken writes:

As some of you know, I harbour ambitions to start a microbrewery in Dublin, so one of the things I was keen to do on our recent trip was to research what New Zealand craft breweries have to offer. Cue some impromptu documentation. Unfortunately, the photos are none too good (thanks to the limitations of my phone’s camera–although there may have been occasions when my eyesight was equally blurry).

As you might expect, overall it was a case of the good the bad and the ugly. The standout brewers for me were the Stoke Brewery, Mike’s, and the Hallertau range. By ‘ugly’ I really only mean interesting. I tried a couple of extremely highly hopped beers, Epic brewery’s Pale Ale and Mike’s Imperial India Pale Ale, the last of which was practically hallucinatory. There was a memorable smoked ale (Smokin’ Bishop) and a manuka blossom infused ‘Captain Cooker’, that was delicious but too rich to drink in large measures.

Emerson's 1812 India Pale Ale

Emerson’s 1812 was the first beer I tired. Unfortunately, it suffered from being too warm when I tried it, both the beer and the day, and I don’t think I got a full sense of it’s potential. My rule of thumb is that the brightness of the beer best matches the brightness of the day. It’s hard to appreciate the complexities of something dark and malty on a hot sunny day and a bright crisp and dry lager is merely gassy and unsatisfying on a cold winter’s night. Emerson’s 1812 says it’s a hoppy pale ale, but it really didn’t taste especially hoppy to me.

Next I tried Tuatara Brewery’s light lager ‘Helles’.

Tuatara brewery's Helles

Later I tried their Hefeweissbier ‘Hefe’.
cloudy wheat beer from Tuatara brewery

I’m afraid neither beer appealed to me. The lager was a little on the sweet side for my taste. And while I really like cloudy wheat beers, perhaps for their sweetness, I didn’t think the wheat beer flavour came through very strongly in this example and it wasn’t strongly carbonated enough.

Aotearoa brewery's Mata Manuka golden ale

This apparently award winning beer didn’t appeal to me either.

NZ craft beer collaboration beer

I was really looking forward to trying this collaborative effort brewed under the leadership of Auckland’s Epic Brewing Company. Unfortunately, Like Epic’s own pale ale, I found it too bitter to be genuinely enjoyable.

Cassels & Sons ESB

The interesting thing about this brewery is that they brew in a wood-fired copper. I have no idea if that affects the taste at all, but it sounds cool. Yum.

Kaimai Brewing Company's Golden Rye Ale

Kaimai Brewing specialises in brewing with Rye; the only New Zealand brewery to do so. Yum.

Stoke Brewery's smokey Ale
Stoke Lager

Stoke's Oatmeal Stout

I also had their Stoke Bomber Kiwi Pale Ale.

Stoke brewery are the outfit that was formerly Mac’s ales before that name was sold to the big multinationals. I found myself having more and more of their beer. All very yummy.

Hawke's Bay Independent Brewery Pilsner
Yum. (This photo also appears to display what lovely youthful skin I have on my left hand).

Yeastie Boys
Great name. The beer, well, it was interesting. These guys contract their brewing out to the Invercargill Brewery, which seems like a very canny way to start a brewery. All you do is come up with the recipes on your regular set up at home, then have it brewed and hope it sells well enough to cover everyone’s costs.

Wanaka Beerworks Old Flemish Dark
These were seasonal creations only available until the end of 2011, so I’m glad I got to try them before they ran out. The Old Flemish dark in particular was very yummy indeed. The other interesting thing about these guys is that they will brew bespoke beers for special occasions wedding anniversaries and the like and bottle them up for you as souvenirs etc. That’s very clever. It’s a service only the ‘little guy’ can provide.

Renaissance Brewing Company American Pale Ale
Renaissance's Stoncutter Scotch Ale
Renaissance's Pale Ale
Doesn’t this last one look especially delicious? I think these beers are beautifully presented and I note that they’ve gone for large 500ml bottles where most of the other beers I’ve tried in NZ are around 330ml or so. All the renaissance beers were yum, but the APA didn’t strike me as especially characteristic of the style.

Hallertau Schwarzbier
Hallertau Porter Noir
Halletau Kolsch
Hallertau Red Ale
These guys vie with Stoke’s for my vie for best New Zealand microbrewery. I only tried the four pictured beers but they were all. really. satisfying. yummy. beers.

Green Man Pils
Green Man Lager
I confess I don’t really know what the difference is between a lager and a pils. I think a pils is a kind of lager, but I don’t know how it’s supposed to differ from the other kind. You can’t readily see from the picture but they are different beers.

Epic Lager
A hoppy lager
Epic Pale Ale
Epic Pale Ale is a mouth-puckeringly bitter hop bomb. I could barely drink it. The other insanely hoppy beer I had over here was Mike’s Double India Pale Ale.
Mike's India Pale Ale
Without a doubt I preferred the Mike’s beer which had very heavy hop aromas, which for me are the reward for drinking a very highly hopped beer, as well as an enormous amount of malt to stop it getting too bitter. I also recommend (but neglected to photograph) the standard mike’s ale.

Moa blanc wheat beer
Yum. Pretty funny website too (I only said ‘pretty funny’).

3 boys oyster stout
The day was too hot when I drank this, so I missed the best it had to offer. It wasn’t as nice as the Porterhouse’s oyster stout in Dublin, though this could be due to the tasting conditions.

Boundary Road Lager
I tried this and the ‘flying fortress‘ Kiwi Pale Ale. The lager was perfectly satisfying if that’s your thing, but the pale ale was quite tasty. yum.

smokin' bishop

Captain Cooker Manuka beer
Delicious in small doses. It’s an interesting idea. The beer attempts to recreate the first beer brewed in New Zealand by Captain Cook. I don’t know if it contains hops, I expect it does, or if it’s made with a sort of manuka gruit.

So that’s about it. Lots of yummy beer and lots of ideas for small breweries. I’ve got my thinking cap on.

First of many

Dot writes: we’re doing quite well with the jetlag, I think – up at 4am but wrenched the boys out of their afternoon nap to go swimming and achieve a normal bed-time – but I am definitely too tired still to contemplate the intricate decision-making process of posting photos from our trip. However, here’s a little comparison: Hugh visiting Hamilton Gardens in December 2008:

and, with Frank, in January 2012:

Strange how the fountain seems to have shrunk, isn’t it?

And here’s some more of the latter occasion:


Dot writes: here are some things that are not typically part of an Irish Christmas: getting sunburnt on Christmas Day (and I was wearing suncream; it’s just there’s a bit in the middle of my upper back I seem to have missed); eating the roast dinner outside on the deck; Hugh playing on the slip’n’slide, with Uncle Mat demonstrating the correct technique for sliding along on one’s belly; walking along the pavement a few days later and seeing all the cracks highlighted with a deposit of fine red strands from the disintegrating pohutakawa flowers.

We’ve adequately trashed Ken’s brother’s house and have temporarily moved on to Ken’s Dad’s house in Raglan, before moving the demolition team to Wanganui for New Year. I walked down to the shops to buy nappies this morning and thought the day quite cool – I was comfortable in a t-shirt but feeling the breeze on my arms. Ken says that he thinks a proper frosty northern Christmas is best really, and he has a point: the lights and the hot rich food are more satisfying in the dark and cold. But I am quite happy to trade a bit of Christmas sparkle for sunshine and warm, at least once in a while.

I went to church on Christmas Day and found that, in a congregation of maybe forty (it was a little tin-shack church on a wooded road in Titirangi), the woman next to me and the woman in front of me were both immigrants from Ireland.

12000 miles later

Dot writes: and here we are. Indeed we’ve been here for almost 24 hours, but yesterday was a bit of a blur – partly a happy warm blur of gorgeous summer weather and idyllic views of bush and sea from the suburb where Ken’s brother now lives, partly just a muddle of badly-timed naps – so this is the soonest I’ve made it to the computer. And, seeing I last logged in for a bit of a cry of anguish, let it be recorded that the numerous changes of clothes we packed in the carry-on were not needed, that even I (who did my share of the puking on the morning we left) recovered sufficiently to chase a two-year-old around Heathrow, that the flight was, as always, inconceivably long, but that apart from sleeping at all the wrong times and bouncing around at all the wrong times the boys were really quite good (thank the Lord they are such telly addicts), and that I managed to watch an episode of The Killing somewhere over the Pacific and it was excellent. Now we just have to get the boys through to something more like an acceptable bedtime today. Oh, and finish our Christmas shopping. Hugh is being a bit tragic about not being allowed to open his presents yet, but we only have to resist him through another three days.

Since we were last here Ken’s brother has become a father; his little daughter Hannah is two months old and is asleep upstairs as I write. She is a dear little thing and seems very quiet and quiescent from the perspective of a mother of a two-year-old and a four-year-old, but I think she actually works her parents pretty hard. You can’t tell a two-month-old that it’s just not time for milk now and to watch the window until the light shows. (And I could hear that, like Frank, she was awake at 3.30am.) Ken’s sister-in-law, however, looks as petite and slim as ever and not at all as though she’s just had a baby and is dealing with reflux and night-feeds. Ken’s brother always reminds me faintly of Tony Soprano – not in a kicking-people’s-heads-in way, just in a head-of-the-business, carrying-the-weight-of-the-family kind of way – and I think he will be a doting father to a daughter: he will cherish and protect his little princess.

The plan for Christmas is that we’re having it here in Auckland with Ken’s brother, and Ken’s parents and uncle will be coming to join us. Then I think we’re heading to Wanganui to Ken’s mum for New Year. Not sure what else; there are a lot of people we’d like to catch up with. I suspect I won’t manage a trip to the South Island this time, though now there’s someone I’d like to go and see in Christchurch as well as friends and relatives in Dunedin. Short term, I want to get that shopping sorted out (I even have a recurrent anxiety dream about staying with relatives for Christmas and getting to Christmas Eve without having bought the presents), and I want to take the children to the beach.

I think New Zealand is not untouched by the convulsions that have been afflicting the economies of the developed world, but it seems a much more cheerful place to be than Ireland right now. The summer weather definitely helps too. I’m extremely happy to be here.

Kiwi Electoral Referendum

Ken writes:

In New Zealand they’re gearing up for a general election and a referendum on whether to change the voting procedure.

New Zealand currently uses MMP, or the Mixed Member Proportional system of representation. Every voter has two votes. They vote for the person they want to represent their electoral region, and they vote for which party they want to form the government. The overall make up of the parliament has to respect the proportions of support parties achieve in this second party vote. So if party A garners 15% support in the party vote, it has to have around 15% of the MPs in the eventual parliament.

Some of the MPs in the parliament are directly elected by voting public by winning the contests in their electoral regions. I think in the 2011 election there will be 63 electorate MPs, 7 Maori MPs and 50 list-MPs elected indirectly via the party vote system. The MPs who represent regions win their seat by gaining the largest number of votes, but this is never or nearly never a majority of the electorate. The Maori MPs are elected on the same basis; they represent regions, but their constituents chose to be on a separate, parallel Maori-only electoral roll instead of on the general register. Pakeha can stand for election as Maori MPs but can’t vote for them.

Once the 70 electorate/Maori-MPs have been determined and their party affiliations noted, the overall makeup of parliament is determined by the party vote and parties that are under-represented in terms of the number of electorate seats they won are topped up with MPs drawn from a list. (Parties have to announce their lists before the election so the voting public knows who will take any seats the parties win.)

There are a couple of further complications, such as a threshold that a party needs to reach to get list-MPs (to prevent a very fractured parliament), but that’s basically it. It’s a wee bit involved but not excessively complicated. Summary: two votes; one for a person, one for a party. Makeup of parliament fixed by party vote.

The referendum will put a two part question to the voting public: a) Should New Zealand keep the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system? and b) if New Zealand were to switch to another voting system, which voting system would you choose?
There are four options, and you get to pick one, not put them in the order of your preference.

First Past the Post (FPP): The old system. You vote for a person to represent your region. The person with the most votes wins the seat.

Preferential Voting (PV): Put the candidates representing your region in order of your preference. If no one gets more than fifty percent of the first preference votes cast, the candidate with the fewest first preference votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed among the remaining candidates until someone crosses the fifty percent mark. I think this is the same as the Alternative Vote (AV) system that was rejected in the UK earlier this year.

Single Transferable Vote (STV): The Irish System. There are multi-seat constituencies. In New Zealand it would most likely be 4-7 MPs per constituency. You put the candidates in the order of your preference. Those meeting the quota are elected, others are eliminated and their votes are redistributed according to their voters’ next preferences until all the seats are filled.

Supplementary Member (SM): This one is like MMP except that the party vote doesn’t determine the make up of parliament as a whole, but rather the proportion of the list-MPs a party has matches the proportion of the party vote it wins. That is, you vote for a person and a party. If party A gets 15% of the party vote, then it gets 15% of the list-MPs (currently 50 in New Zealand) rather than 15% of the overall parliament (currently 120 MPs).

I’m not entitled to vote in this election (having been absent from New Zealand for so long), but if I were, I’d vote to keep MMP, but if we were to change, I’d opt for preferential voting (PV). I really like the fact that preferential voting ensures that whoever wins the seat always has the backing of a majority of the electorate in that region (even if they are not always everybody’s first choice).

I do think proportionality is a virtue of electoral systems, but none of the alternatives on the referendum are as proportional as MMP. If proportionality is what is important in a voting system, stick with MMP. The supplementary member system is obviously less proportional, because the bearing of the party vote on the overall makeup of parliament is reduced. FPP is not proportional and neither is PV.

STV is somewhat proportional. The proportionality comes into the picture not through the preferential voting regime, but by having multi-seat constituencies. It means you don’t have a winner takes all affair where one party claims all the parliamentary representation of that constituency. Instead it’s broken into chunks and the parties votes are ’rounded’ to the nearest chunk. In a four seat constituency, a chunk is just over 20% of the votes cast, so a party with 38% percent of the popular vote may get two seats, while one with 23% and another with 17% both get just one. The remaining parties with 22% between them get nothing. This is proportionality for the big and middle sized parties only.

For me it’s a toss up between PV and STV. I think PV edges it. One of the criticisms you hear about STV here in Ireland is that it means that MPs from the same party, who are hoping all to win seats in the same constituency, are actually competing against each other more intensely than candidates from different parties, because they’re after the first preference votes of the same party members (they usually can’t both get elected), whereas candidates from different parties are competing for the preferences of different groups of people and usually can both get elected. This means MPs have a strong incentive to prioritise pleasing their immediate local constituents at the expense of thinking about the broader good of the country. Seán MP will always vote for fixing potholes in Bally-end-of-beyond, because if they don’t they’ll lose their seat to another challenger from within the same party. There can’t be this sort of intra-party rivalry in single seat preferential voting.

Of course this is not the only relevant consideration by any means.