2020 in Aotearoa

2020 in Aotearoa

Swimming at Palm Beach

Twenty -Twenty started well in Aotearoa, a fine Summer with sea swimming in very acceptable temperatures. A couple of Out to Swim team mates from the UK visited and I did the usual drive around showing off Waiheke Island with a swim on the fabulous Onetangi Beach followed by lunch. Or was it the other way around?

On Onetangi Beach

Lunch followed by a swim? It all seems so long ago now as I write on the penultimate day of a year that has seen such upheavals yet been strangely uneventful at the same time. Today, the UK has reported a record number of Covid 19 cases, even as several vaccines are being administered.

February saw me in Melbourne for the annual IGLA swim meet, connecting with many gay and lesbian friends from around the world. I collected a few medals on the way and was particularly proud of my Team Auckland relay team winning two golds in our age group.

TAMS in Melbourne

March began with a return to Otago researching my Grandparent’s story. In Tapanui, where they began married life, I visited the local museum and looked through the back copies of the local paper (1913-22). I also visited the farm they leased and talked to the present owner. Finally, I revisited the cemetery where their first born (my Uncle) is buried and has lain un-visited for over one hundred years. I drove back to Dunedin through farm land that was once the thriving community of Pukepito, where my Grandmother had her first teaching post. Farming does not require so much labour now and these rural communities have disappeared.

COVID beard

Back in Auckland the festival was beginning. Already, COVID-19 was about in the world and had disrupted delivery of equipment needed for the out-door spectacular. I managed to catch a few shows before everything was cancelled and we went into lockdown in the last week of March. I stopped shaving with a tentative view to growing a beard and started a diary. The hand-written in pencil diary lasted 15 days and really is too boring to take any further and the beard, by contrast, seems to be a success and is still with me – for the moment.

Kereru native pigeon

I did write a short essay entitled ‘A Duty of Care’ a part of which is worth quoting here. “There was little debate when our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced the first and dramatic measures against the COVID-19 virus. She was firm, precise and empathetic – something the rest of the world has noticed and envies. My impression was that she and her government acknowledge a duty of care for us. It’s an important concept and there are many stories of individuals and groups applying this principle to their friends and neighbours.” “…so many governments/rulers around the world … (believe) their duty is to the profits of the wealthy and to consolidate their own power.” “In Aotearoa – New Zealand we are teetering on the brink, holding our collective breath against a community spread.”

Rocky Bay Swimming spot

Everything seemed to stop. The rest of the Festival events were cancelled with refunds or the option to donate the ticket to the performers. Swimming pools were closed and in desperation I took to swimming in the sea for extended periods. I managed about fifteen minutes a day, dodging around the yachts in Rocky Bay, amounting to around six to eight hundred meters. Sometimes there were one or two people about. An old man in an aluminium dingy rowed back and forth across the bay for exercise. A neighbour was in isolation because some Australians, who had been visiting his work place, subsequently tested positive on their return. He needed emergency supplies of Chardonnay, which I deposited outside his door. Another neighbour asked me to be her walking buddy – we were encouraged to take exercise by the Prime Minister. We still walk and talk once a week. I collected another friend who wanted another gay man to talk with and go to the movies when lockdown finished. We’re still friends and have extended to theatre and lunches out.

Picnic at Man O War Bay

After a week or so, our leader put the lid on my solo swimming in the sea due to anticipated problems created in the event of my needing to be rescued. Undeterred, I took to my fold up Brompton and cycled around the hilly roads of Rocky Bay. I took pains to ride the shortest route down and find the longest way up-hill. My London swimming club, Out to Swim started zoom exercises. The time difference meant that most sessions were in the middle of the night, but thankfully they were recorded. It was weird exercising on my own and looking at all the familiar faces in London.

Kereru native pigeon

I’d planned to go to the European Swimming Championships in Hungary in May/June. Fortunately, I’d delayed entering and booking flights. The Auckland Masters around the same time was also cancelled along with the NZ short-course Masters in August. By September I should have been exploring Peru and returning to London in November. At the end of the day, none of this matters, and I’ve felt looked after and lucky to be here in Aotearoa.

My main activity during the first Lock-down was going through my grandfather’s bankruptcy file. After making an application to view it four years ago it eventually arrived in a zip file containing around four hundred PDF’s. The process and the workings of the Official Assignee were fascinating and I gained a valuable insight to my Grandfather’s character and activities. I’d already learned about his marriage, five children and divorce but we never met. I found his bankruptcy story very moving and tragic, perfect material to go into my next novel ‘Donald and Hilda’ the story of their relationship. It’ll be a few years away, but keep your eyes out for it. In the mean time you can always read my last book, ‘The Donors’.

The Donors

COVID-19 produced reasonable consensus between political parties here. The then leader of the opposition found his compulsive adversarial approach  didn’t work, so he was replaced with an unknown and untested chap. He found it all too much and lasted only a matter of weeks leaving the post open for Judith Collins – formerly known as ‘Crusher Collins’. She’s made a few attempts at empathy, but it doesn’t suit her. She’s better doing irony.

Ruahine Ranges, Wakarara

July saw me back down in Hawke’s Bay on my brother’s farm underneath the snowy Ruahine ranges. We’d been released from lock-down and moved gradually down the levels until swimming pools could open and I was back swimming.

First post Lockdown swim

It was a relief to go out and spend some money in a place that was not the supermarket. With a complete absence of tourists, Kiwis took to the roads and planes to explore their own country, bringing temporary relief to some of the top holiday destinations. The ski fields were full and hiring a campervan suddenly became affordable. Although there are still no gigantic Cruise liners clogging up our ports, trade has continued and my Airline pilot cousin has been busy flying freight to Shanghai and Los Angeles. It seems that the world still needs to be fed. In return we got the film crew for the next Avatar movie and various sporting teams, all of whom spent their time in isolation. We’ve also had a stream of ex-pat Kiwis returning home. Some have developed COVID in isolation and indeed we’ve learned to manage our borders over time, as mistakes have been made and there have been a few near misses with some escapees unable to stand being locked up in a hotel. We had a mini lockdown in Auckland in August/September, the cause of which remains uncertain, but could have been from a hotel lift button.

Private view Central Hawke’s Bay

October allowed me to return to Central Hawke’s Bay after the boredom of the second lock-down. I filled my lungs with fresh spring mountain air and helped with docking lambs on the farm swimming at the local pool in between. We had another scare with an outbreak among the visiting Pakistani Cricket team but for the moment we are almost operating normally except for mask wearing on public transport. A trip to Great Barrier Island with my brother and sister-in-law was a diversion in November, which compensated for losing my flight back to London.

Windy Canyon Great Barrier
Fantasy Island accommodation Great Barrier Island
East Coast beach Great Barrier

I’m looking forward to 2021. I’ve found the progress of COVID19 fascinating from a scientific point of view and been astonished at the rapid development of the vaccine. It won’t be rolled out in Aotearoa until April next year, by which time I will be back in London and queuing up at my local health centre for my jab.

Wakarara from the Ruahines

Books read and recommended this year: The History Speech by Mark Sweet (NZ); Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (US); Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski (US/Germany/Poland); Pale Rider by Laura Spinney (UK); The Great Successor by Anna Fifield (UK); Girl Woman Other by Bernadine Evaristo (UK).

Christmas hike up to Sunrise Hut

 

 

Greta Thunberg

I have become increasingly irritated, upset and angry at the stream of media attacks on environmental champion Greta Thunberg. I’m disgusted at the way some journalists have taken delight in mocking her youth, her autism and her family, recycling information into derogatory and twisted propaganda to meet their personal needs.

I first became aware of the green-house gas issue during my degree studies in ecology back in the early seventies. My scientific training has been invaluable in observing weather patterns, which have slowly but inexorably changed over the last forty years. I’m also a keen gardener and have noticed the changing flowering times and what can and cannot now be grown in London. These changes have accelerated in the past decade.

Back in the early seventies, The Club of Rome predicted that fossil fuels would run out early in the next century and that we should, as a species, prepare for limits to economic growth. At that stage, there did not seem to be too much danger from green-house gasses. However, the estimation of fossil fuel reserves was spectacularly wrong and we sent carbon into the atmosphere at an increasing rate well into the 21st century and continue to do so. At the same time, plastics were developing and suddenly took off, creating the problems of which we are now very well aware.

Fossil fuels are much more complicated and expensive to replace and their energy production is cheap, creating vast profits. The well-being of children and their future seems to have been subsumed by economic greed. Climate change and its challenges is inconvenient to the oil barons and besides, they aren’t going to be around when the sea levels rise and temperate regions are overwhelmed by refugees from uninhabitable equatorial lands.

Two examples of sensible global action by politicians happened. The removal of lead in petrol (recognised as harmful to public health) and the banning of CFCs, which were proven to directly cause the hole in the ozone layer which protected people from dangerous radiation. Both of these actions happened without too much democratic consultation; they were, after all in the best interests of human beings, especially our children, and of course, the environment. The latter didn’t feature much in their thinking – these actions were relatively cheap and easy to implement.

Human beings remind me of a species of Marine Iguana found in the Galapagos Islands. Iguanas survival depends of their tenacity to maintain as good place in the sun. Once their bodies are warmed up, they can dive into the cold Humbolt Current from Antarctica to feed on green algae. So tenaciously do they cling to their territory that not even and encroaching flow of molten lava will move them. Unable to adapt and flee for their lives, they perish. The lava flow may seem far away but any volcanologist knows that a new channel can suddenly open up bringing it closer.

All around the world people have failed to democratically elect representatives who believe in climate change or are prepared to do something about it. Our kind of democracy has failed in this respect. This is the message to adults from Greta and many other young people. We are supposed to have wisdom and experience and when we are shown up by youth, we don’t like it. It makes us feel foolish.

For those who say they are not climate change deniers and then post rude or hateful comments about Greta Thunberg, Autumn Peltier, Marie Copeny, Xiye Bastida and many others environmental activists, just think about that for a moment. There’s a conflict here between beliefs and actions.

You might also pause to notice that these young leaders are all females and with diverse racial origins. It looks as if the age of the rich old white men is nearing an end.

A Pink Flamingo, Circle Line, World Pride and Breakfast in a Diner.

Out to Swim

Saturday is Pink Flamingo day, an IGLA tradition to complete the week of competition. Out to Swim won last year in Paris at the Gay Games so we are not eligible to win again and haven’t entered. I’m the only one here to watch. All the entries seem to involve an initial conflict, needed for all good stories, and some of them are anti LGBT situations. Resolution is achieved with the help of one or multiple super heroes. Part of the show must take place in the pool which is an opportunity for some syncro. None of it is as good as last year and the combination of acoustics and bad sound system renders the commentary unintelligible.

Empire state behind
Liberty – someone wondered what she might think of now.
Manhattan
Empire State
Boat Party

It’s time for a late afternoon rest before the Circle Line Boat Party around Manhattan Island in the evening. On the boat, the bar is ‘open’ which means that drinks are included in the ticket price. Gin & tonic seems to be in order. I do need to stock up on food to manage the gin, but that’s not free. My choice is a burger – my least favourite dish – but at least it comes with salad. There’s a good group of older guys up at the prow of the boat and we discuss various new buildings and their architectural merit. I learn about ‘skinny scrapers’ which are shooting up everywhere between the regular buildings. Each floor is an apartment and the owners drive into the lift go to their floor and park the car. I’m amazed they can stand up.

Go go boys
Jade’s fan dance
Dancing over the rail

The party is hotting up as we pass liberty Island. Someone comments to me ‘I wonder what she’s thinking these days.’ We cruise on under the Brooklyn Bridge and past the United Nations, which once seemed huge but is now dwarfed by newer buildings. Out to Swim youngsters seem to be leading the dancing so it’s time to join in. Christophe takes any opportunity to make use of any pole to dance on (he does pole dancing) even if it is horizontal. He’s got competition from a sexy woman called Jade who dances erotically with a blue-tailed fan. She gives me her necklace to mind. At the end of the party I frantically search for her to return the necklace – she’s pleased.

Lights on

We don’t do the complete circle of Manhattan, doubling back to our starting place as the light come on in the city. Someone suggests we move on to Industry Bar, walkable from the pier though everyone except me gets a cab. There’s a queue but as I’m not with anyone and probably because I’m older, I get fast tracked. I’ve danced on the boat and had such a good time that the cramped conditions inside Industry are off-putting. I queue for a drink, but it’s cash only and I don’t have enough dollars on me, having spent my cash on food. The music doesn’t inspire dancing, although some are having a go. It’s time to quit whilst I’m ahead.

Corporate support for Pride on Broadway

Sunday is the big day – marching in New York’s world Pride Parade. I spend the morning cleaning up the apartment and resting in anticipation. We’re to march with Team New York Aquatics – those who have stayed on will make up a huge international group of LGBT swimmers. The plan is to meet at the starting point at 4pm. I walk down town with an idea to watch the early part of the parade which commences at noon. This doesn’t work as everything is blocked off and I end up arriving an hour early along with a very tall hairy guy with a luxuriant beard. He’s from ‘Quack’, Salt Lake City, Utah. He strips down to his speedos which I’d seen around the pool. They are a colourful mass of duck heads. A random woman wants to photograph his speedos, then, realising how that sounds, insists she’s not just interested in his crotch and does a selfie with him.

Ready for Pride

OTS Orca Water Polo Speedos
Tom of Finland on Speedos
OTS swimmers ready

Swimmers gather and expectations are high. Industrial scaffolding on nearby buildings provides Christophe with the opportunity to show off his pole dancing again and delight everyone around. There’s word of a two-hour delay in setting off so everyone relaxes. Swimmers flood into nearby bars, returning occasionally to check on progress. By 7.30pm we are still not moving. Most of the swimmers have gone back to various bars and our WhatsApp group records our Out to Swim people and their locations. I return from resting in one such bar to find that Christophe has fallen of the scaffolding and broken his arm. A group takes him to a nearby emergency room and I find myself alone in the crowded streets of New York. Nothing seems to be moving and the accident has upset me. Time to go home, finish my bottle of wine, watch the fireworks display which may be part of the Madonna concert, and sleep. I later hear that the last marcher completed the course at half past midnight and the city sweepers had not completed their work by rush-hour. Clearly the size of the march had not been anticipated.

Water Polo Speedos
Still waiting to go.

Monday morning sees me in the Brooklyn Diner for breakfast. Despite the name it’s just around the corner from the apartment. It’s a successful chain which is now up market and expensive, for what it is. Udayan and I have a good chat about everything – putting the world to rights, that sort of thing, before he has to attend to his Chinese business students who, he says, are being charged a lot for a not very good deal.

THE LOST CHILD

She wept. For the third time she’d lost a child. The journalist had offered hope – a way home – but it hadn’t worked. She’d seen it all unfold on her phone and now regretted talking to him. Better to have remained unknown, but she’d done it for her child. The cold killed him – the conditions here. Perhaps it was for the best – they would have taken him from her – another type of loss – knowing he was alive. Now that the eyes of the world were looking on the other side of the earth there was a chance to disappear – find her husband. According to her phone, he was a prisoner. Maybe she could find him.

Working the tube

He is there again on my return journey still working his way up and down the carriage on the Hammersmith an City Line.

         ‘Excuse me ladies and gents sorry to bother you … sorry to interrupt your journey. I’m currently homeless, I’m eighteen and have no family. I’m trying to get some cash together for something to eat and a room in a hostel tonight. Anything would be much appreciated. Anything? Have a good evening.’

The travellers in my section of the carriage studiously concentrate on what ever they are staring at. The advertisements for ‘Welthify’, their reflection in the window or just thin air in front of them. One woman is looking in her bag.

          ‘I don’t have any cash, but I might have some food here.’

I shrug as he passes. I seldom carry cash these days – sometimes a pound coin for the locker at the swimming pool but the token on my key ring works just as well. He is young, a few blond bristles show on his upper lip. His face is evenly dirty – blond hair stiff with grime looks as if it was once stylish but it’s grown out. He wears a sleeveless padded vest far too large for him over a hoodie. Grubby blue trackie bottoms sit on top of a still respectable looking pair of black designer trainers.

Two black travellers just past me contribute. The young woman has a handful of coins which she continues to play with. I want to help – offer him a shower and wash his clothes, but I know that’s not wise. An older gay man – could be easily misconstrued. He needs professional help.

As the tube draws near my stop, the young man appears again waiting to get off. He digs into his trackie pockets and withdraws handfuls of coins which he seems to be counting.

          ‘Ca, ca, ca boom ca, ca, cabomm. Brrroom, cha, cha, cha. Na, nana na, nana na.’ He chants his mantra.

Like me he knows which door of the train will stop by the station exit. I follow him as he bounds up the stairs. I wonder what he will to exit the station. Probably jump over the barrier or follow someone closely through the gates. By the time I get up the stairs he’s on the other side and buying something from the kiosk. A drink or sweets I imagine. I look back as I exit on to the street. He’s rubbing a scratch – card with a coin. I wonder if that works for him?

Granddad’s War – Armistice Day 11.00 am 11 November 2018

George Lockwood 1915 aged 18

I wrote this short play, based on my grandfather, George Lockwood, to mark the 100th anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli.  Today seems an appropriate time to share it.  George never wore a poppy nor attended memorial services.

Granddad’s War

A short play

By

Christopher Preston

Characters 

Granddad: (George) 70’s tall and frail with bright twinkling eyes – a gentle man.

Charlie: His eldest grandson 18.  Also plays the young George

Vicky: His eldest granddaughter 17. Also plays the nurse.

Colin: A Quaker 30’s a stretcher bearer in the medical corps.  Also plays Henry, George’s son.

Scene 1:

George Marries Nell

The back lawn of a suburban garden in a small provincial city.   George is sitting in a comfortable chair asleep and surrounded by wrapped presents. He stays onstage throughout. Charlie enters with a sack.

Charlie:         Happy Birthday Granddad.  Here’s my present.

George:        Thank you Charlie.  I wonder what it can be.

Charlie:         You should be able to guess.

George:        It’s either pine cones or sheep manure.

Charlie:         Brian’s got you the pine cones – not so messy to gather.

George:        My tomatoes will be very pleased and Nana will be able     to light the fire. Thank you.

Charlie:         There’s lots of food.  Mum’s done her stuffed eggs, Aunty Dawn’s brought a pav and Aunty Lizzie has made her famous brandy snaps – all the usual.

George:        Good. Any sign of Henry?

Charlie:         No, they were supposed to be leaving an hour ago.

George sighs

Vicky enters with a parcel

Vicky:           It’s here Granddad, your medal that Mum applied for.  She said I should bring it straight out to you.

Charlie:         Can we open it Granddad?

George:        We should wait for Henry.

Vicky:           Oh, please Granddad, they’ll be ages.

George:        Alright, but the presents have to wait.

George un-wraps the parcel

Charlie:         That’s a pretty flash box.

Vicky:           It’s huge.  What does it say?

Charlie:         1915 The Donkey and the Wounded ANZAC. What does that mean Granddad?

George:        Charlie, go and see if there’s any sign of Henry. There’s a good boy.

Charlie exits

Vicky:           (Turns the medal over) Australia and New Zealand 5 stars

G.Barker …  Granddad, what was it like at Gallipoli?

George:        Well, we arrived on boats, there was a beach and we had to line up for kit inspection.  We were supposed to supply various things ourselves.  For example, we had to have three kinds of soap: Shaving, bathing and laundry and were ordered to produce the items when they were called out. There was a small chap, Jones, I think his name was, didn’t have much in his kit.  When the sergeant called out ‘Bath soap’ Jones brought out a small bar of white soap from his kit, held it up and then put it back. When the sergeant called out ‘Shaving soap’, he pulled out the same small bar of soap and held it up. Finally, the sergeant called out ‘Laundry soap’, and Jones, again pulled out the bar of soap and held it up.

Vicky:           I always like that story, it makes me laugh … you never talk about the fighting.

George:        It’s all such a long time ago … there’s nothing much to tell.

Vicky:           Mum says you got shrapnel in your lung …. Not long after you arrived.

George falls asleep.

Vicky:           Granddad?

Fade.

Scene 2:

George and Nell with daughter Joan circa 1922

The camp-site at Gallipoli, It is very cold.  George enters in a great-coat with rucksack on his back. There is sound of sporadic firing throughout the scene.

George:        Hello, they’ve moved us, I think I’m supposed to be sharing with  you.

Colin:            Gidday, you just arrived?

George:        Yes, a few days ago. George Barker, infantry.

Colin:            Colin Levinson, medical corp.

George:        Are you doctor?

Colin:            No, just a stretcher bearer.  You a conscript?

George:        Yes.  What about you?

Colin:            I’m a Quaker … Couldn’t afford the hundred pound fine or going to prison.

George:        I’m an Anglican.  I don’t know anything about Quakers.

Colin:            We don’t believe in war, so this was the only option.

Pause

Colin:            Take your pack off mate and sit down, you’re a sitting duck standing there.

George:        Rightey oh.

Colin:            That’s more like it young fella.  How old are you?

George:        Eighteen, I left school a year ago.

Colin:            Brothers and sisters?

George:        Two older sisters.

Colin:            Only son eh? I dunno. It’s such a waste.

George:        What is?

Colin:            Just … this fight. (Pause) But, she’ll be right if you keep your coat on and your head low.  Bullets and the cold is what’s killing men here.

George:        Are you married?

Colin:            Fifteen years.  I’m just hoping all this will be over by the time my oldest is seventeen.

George:        Over by Christmas they told us.

Colin:            Can’t see it myself, but what do I know?  The British generals are hopeless.  See all those bridges there and the steps over that way.  We and the Ozzies organised all that.  You can even have your hair cut down there by the store.  No, it would be over by Christmas if we were in charge.  Let’s have a look at your chitty.  Nah, you’re not with me, you’re further down the line.  Just remembered, you infantry blokes have to be together, ready to go over the top.

George stands and puts on his rucksack.  There is a tremendous burst of gunfire. There are ricochet sounds of bullets bouncing off cliffs. George is hit and staggers.

Colin:            Hold on there mate.  Where are you hit?

George:        Here, it hurts.

Colin:            Help.

There is another burst of gunfire and Colin is hit.  He falls to the ground. The scene fades into the hospital ship where both men are lying side by side.

Scene 3

Silver Wedding

Nurse:           It’s shrapnel.  The surgeon says it’s in your lung so we can’t operate.  You might have to live with it for the rest of your life.

George:        Live, Nurse?

Nurse:           Yes, you’re one of the lucky ones.  You’ll be able to tell your children about it.

George:        But I didn’t do anything, didn’t fire a shot, except in training.

Nurse:           It doesn’t matter. You were here.

George:        Where?  Where am I?

Nurse:           You’re on the Hospital ship Gascon.  They’re shooting at us as well, but you should be OK down here.  Now try to get some more sleep, that’s what you need just now.

She exits.  George looks around and sees Colin.

George:        Colin … Private Levinson. They carried us out on donkeys …  Are you alright?  Hello.

With difficulty, George gets up and gives him a prod. Pause

George:        I’m sorry mate.

George drifts off to sleep as the lights fade.

Scene 4

Me and my grandparents

George is asleep again. Vicky enters.

Vicky:           We’re all starving, can’t we open the presents?  Uncle Henry might be ages.

George:        Just a few more minutes.

Vicky:           Granddad, what about the food in the war.  What did they give you to eat?

George:        Well, there was a shortage of flour so there wasn’t much bread or cake.  One day, the cook found a sack of flour sitting behind a shed.  He was so excited that he made a batch of scones.

Charlie enters with a bag of pine cones.

Charlie:         Mum makes great scones.

Vicky:           Shh. Granddad is telling another war story.

Charlie:         (whispers) They all tell the story of the scones.

Vicky:           How did the scones turn out Granddad?

George:        Well, they looked great but when the men tried to eat them they were as hard as rocks.

Vicky:           What did the cook do wrong?

George:        The sack of flour turned out to be Plaster of Paris.

Vicky:           Oh. What was that doing at Gallipoli?

Charlie:         For setting broken arms and legs.

There is a sound of a car arriving, doors opening, greetings and adult and children’s voices. 

Charlie:         They’re here Granddad.

Vicky and Charlie rush off. George looks again at his medal then falls asleep.

Henry enters.

Henry:           Sorry we’re late Dad.  Had to sort out some sheep this morning. Anyway, Happy Birthday … Dad?  Are you asleep again?  Come on, wake up.

He gives him a shake. There is a pause.

Vicky enters followed by Charlie

Vicky:           We can open the presents now that you are here Uncle Henry. Shall I call the others?

Henry:           No, Vicky. Granddad isn’t going to wake up.

Charlie:         Is he dead?

Henry:           Charlie, go and ask Nana to come out here please, and Vicky make sure none of the kids come out.  Find them some games to play out the front … or something.

They exit

Henry picks up the Gallipoli medal and looks at it.

Henry:           You never did tell us about it, not properly, just the funny stories. Now it’s too late.

 Fade to black.

 

 

                    

Dressing the Christmas Tree

Oh Christmas tree.

December in the Northern Hemisphere and I’ve decided to have a Christmas Tree this year. Summer in New Zealand rapidly wilts the local Pinus Radiata and anyway, I have no decorations there. In London, stored in boxes is a history of baubles, fairy lights, buntings and assorted miscellaneous decorations, bringing with them memories and musings on this most pagan of festivals.

My mother in her later years shocked me by admitting that she dreaded and hated Christmas. She detested the drunkenness and rows associated with the family business owned by my grandmother and managed by my father. Somehow Mum never let on about her Christmas misery. Dad would go out on the road side and cut down a Pinus Radiata seedling – later, we were old enough to do it. The tree was decorated then my brother and I awoke on Christmas morning to a litter of presents.

Santa cowers in his green cave

There were presents from Father Christmas addressed to us boys in Mum’s distinctive hand-writing and offered with a wry smile. We were in on the joke and I don’t think I ever believed in Santa. I’d worked out pretty early on that there was no way he was ever going to get down our chimney.

It was not comfortable to have maternal and paternal grandmothers in the same room so, like many families of the age, we compromised. Paternal Grandmother came on Christmas Eve and being Scottish, preferred Hogmanay. We went to my maternal Grandparents, to meet up with cousins, aunts and uncles, sitting on the back lawn in shorts and bare feet recovering from the heaviness of a traditional Christmas dinner. There was always roast chicken with the usual vegetables, which we were expected to eat, followed by hot steamed pudding secreted with silver threepenny and sixpenny bits. We forced down the hot desert just to get the money. Somehow it was contrived that every child got a coin.

Brass camel from Egypt
Three sandalwood camels from India

We weren’t really a church-going family – nominally Presbyterians – I’d decided around the age of eleven, that the teachings of Jesus pretty much didn’t match up with what was happening in the world and in particular, Christianity. We went to Sunday School and Bible Class to meet up with other youngsters in the village. There were little performances in church – the Strang Brothers, Alan and Jack sang Silent Night while I, wracked with nerves and a lack of talent, accompanied them on the piano. Somehow, I got through it. Some years later I sang Mary’s Boy Child accompanied by the church organist – weird.

A glass ball

In London, for many years, Christmas was about choral singing. I belonged to the Actors Choir and our conductor, Anthony Bowles, would have us perform the Nine Lessons and Carols – inspired by Kings College. Anthony would reluctantly allow us to do a preview only of the carols at the Actors Centre in the week before.

‘Christmas ends in Oxford Street on the twenty-fifth. In the Anglican Church it begins after Christ’s birth.’ And so, we did a tour of churches on the four Sundays after Christmas. We always started with Once in Royal, but there were rules and if we went on too far into January, some hymns could not be sung and we had to substitute. In time, some of the lessons were replaced by readings from Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. We had a high proportion of unbelievers in our choir but somehow the music and fellowship prevailed. Once at Thaxtead Parish Church (the home of Holst) it was bitterly cold. We requested permission to wear our coats. Antony promised that we would be warmed by the Holy Spirit. Sadly, the Spirit failed most of us, confirming my lack of faith. Anthony sadly died from an HIV related illness in the early nineties. He was resigned to be going to Heaven and would greatly miss most of his friends who would be going to ‘The other place.’

The old fairy back on duty after three years packed away

Phillip arrived in my life around the same time and brought with him his box of Christmas decorations. It is this treasure trove which has set me of on these musings, some of them trivial, others joyful, but in the main they have brought a certain sadness. Dressing the tree was a ritual undertaken by Phillip, in a particular way and I’ve tried to emulate that. The tattered fairy on top of the tree is in her late sixties. She was bought from Woolworths in South Yorkshire – a cardboard cut-out dressed in now-faded crepe paper. Her wand-holding hand is missing, so I’ve distracted the viewer with a blue feather. The mostly-glass baubles of varying sizes are now classics going back to the fifties and sixties; modern baubles are now made from plastic.

Buddha contemplates three straw angels

Phillip had a tradition of buying a new decoration every year and we continued that. By the nineties, everything was plastic and expensive so I got into the habit of taking advantage of the after-Christmas sales to buy decorations for next year. There are enough to dress a tree now and I’ve even given away surplus fairy lights.

Whatever your beliefs and customs in these extraordinary times, be kind, remember and hope.

Over My Garden Wall

It’s time to top-up the compost in the raised beds at the front of the house in Stepney Green. A lot of people get pleasure from looking at my garden as they pass by and I like that. Two elderly well-dressed women stop to look and admire my red Phormium Tenax.

‘That’s from New Zealand – flax,’ one of them says. ‘We’re from New Zealand,’ she continues.

‘So am I. I’ve been here thirty-nine years.’

‘I’ve been here for fifty,’ the other woman says.

‘Are you local?’

‘I live in Whitechapel, next to Sainsburys.’

‘That’s handy. I shop there every week. Whitechapel is the traditional place for immigrants to arrive,’ I say with a wry smile.’

She smiles back.

‘It’s great that we have a new woman Prime Minister,’ I venture.

A shadow crosses their faces momentarily. ‘Yes it’s interesting.’

‘I do hope she can fix a few things,’ I’m pushing their boundaries, I can tell.

‘It’s good for Labour to be in power every now and then to make some social changes.’

I adjust my narrative. ‘Yes, it’s good to have a balance between social care and capitalism, I guess.’

‘We don’t really want to get into politics,’ one of them says.

The second one, from Whitechapel adds, ‘New Zealanders live in paradise, they just don’t know how well off they are.’

I look doubtful. ‘Perhaps a demi, semi paradise,’ I say, all the while thinking of child poverty, water pollution, housing and high suicide rates.

She continues. ‘New Zealanders just don’t realise that these issues are all over the world.’

Now this is something I can really agree with. It’s true, New Zealand, in spite of the traditional ‘Overseas Experience’ done by young kiwis, still seems to think that their problems are unique. No, they are not. They are experiences all over the world.

We return to the red Phormium Tenax, a safe conversation. I tell them how I grew it from seed (really easy) brought from my Mother’s garden in Hawke’s Bay. They are amazed that it can survive here in the UK.

‘Well if you’ve been to Otago, (they have) they grow enormous down there.’

They move on down the road and a walnut-faced old man, who has been watching us from his white van parked outside the house next door, approaches. He grins to reveal a front gap in upper and lower teeth between in incisors and canines.

‘You like to have sex?’ He nods in the direction of the parting women.

I’m shocked and surprised on a number of levels. I never consider sex with women whatever their age and briefly consider telling him I’m gay. Quite quickly I decide that it’s not worth the bother and as English is clearly not his first language, he may not get the message. I’m surprised that he has even thought about sex with these women, or has he observed my conversation and confused it with flirtation?

I shake my head and laugh. ‘No, not for me.’ and decide to move the conversation in a different direction. ‘Are you working on the house next door?’

‘Yes, my son. I watch out for parking guys.’

‘If you’re working for the council, why don’t they give you a permit?’

He shrugs. ‘There was not time to do it.’

‘What are you doing in there?’

‘My son, he is fitting new bathroom.’

‘Yes, they are always doing something in there. Where are you from?’

‘Croatia.’

‘Oh. How long have you been in London?’

‘Ten years now.’

‘So after the war?’

He nods and proceeds to tell me all about the former Yugoslavia. I try to show him I know about it and attempt to contribute by naming some of the regions which are now countries, but he’s on a roll. Finally he comes to a halt with ‘Croatians very bad people.’

‘Oh, I thought the Serbians were pretty aggressive.’

‘No, no, Serbians are very kind friendly people. BBC got it wrong, they told lies.’

I’m not quite sure how to answer that, particularly as he’s Croatian himself and should know. Just as I remember the current lot of Croatian military men being tried for genocide, his son emerges from the house next door and he’s off.

A few moments later a woman of South Asian origin, wearing a headscarf passes my garden with her hands, palms together as if deep in prayer. She stops and smiles. ‘I really like your garden; it gives me great pleasure every time I pass.’

 

 

 

Revolt. She said. @ Silo Theatre on International Women’s Day

I’m sitting naked on a beach enjoying the sight of a South American Rugby team, half of them striped off, nervously sitting in rows facing the sea. I’m also reading The Stories of Frank Sargeson, a (closeted) gay New Zealand writer covering the 30’s – 60’s, when my phone rings. It’s a local Auckland number.

‘Hello?’

A pleasant young sounding man – ‘Is this Christopher Preston?’

I’m cautious – ‘Yes.’

‘I’m Mark from iticket.’

I just bought a load of tickets from these guys for the Auckland Arts Festival. What’s gone wrong?

 ‘I noticed that you tried to book tickets for Revolt. She said, at the Basement Theatre.’

‘Yes, it didn’t work so I assumed it’s sold out.’

‘No, no, it’s not, there are tickets left.’

‘Oh, right. How did that happen?’

‘I think you tried to click through on a Silo Theatre email that was faulty.’

‘Oh.’ How did this guy get my phone number? Presumably all the data I entered is still floating around somewhere.

‘Would you like to book a ticket now?’

‘Um … I’ll have to look on my diary. Do you think I can do that while you are on the phone?’

‘Should be ok. I can take your credit card details.’

My credit card is sitting in the pocket of my shorts next to my towel. I attempt this new manoeuvre with my phone. ‘No, I can’t do it. I’m sort of on a beach.’

‘Oh, nice.’

‘Actually there’s no “sort of” about it, I am on a beach.’

Giggles from the young man.

‘I’ll have to do it when I get home what availability is there for Wednesday or Friday?’

I thank the young man and note that the Rugby team have relaxed and are now standing around with arms folded chatting to each other – some on the beach, others knee deep in the sea. Reg, a local in his late seventies, is watching with admiration.  I return to Frank Sargeson whose writing hints strongly of homosexuality. We were in those days, illegal.

 

It’s Wednesday evening and the tiny foyer of the Basement Theatre is filling up with anticipation.  Increasingly, my approach is to avoid too much research beforehand. By experiencing a work without expectations I’m more easily taken by surprise. It is enough that one of my favourite companies, Silo Theatre has produced Revolt. She said. Revolt again, but a number of my professional theatre associates have recommended this show on facebook, including my trans friend and theatre critic Lexi Matheson.

The stage area is scattered like ‘Tracey Emin’s Bed’ and props are visibly on display, encouraging speculation. The stage manager’s desk is also visible as there are no wings in this auditorium. The last few late-comers are ushered over the stage as the cast enter in overalls and clear up the ‘mess’ and proceed to set up for the show.  It’s all frantic activity, choreographed, watch-able and exciting. My expectations are aroused as backdrops are hung and a floor-cloth unrolled, ready for the show. It begins gently, with a scene where the token male expresses his sexual desire to a woman. It’s about gender language and when the woman joins in, his ‘penetration’ conflicts with her ‘enclosure’, so he has to adjust his vocabulary or it’s just not going to happen. The scenes progress with ‘him’ increasingly not able to understand or adjust.  Polynesian actor Fasitua Amosa looks like a gentle giant and shows just enough of his feminine side to make you think there might be hope. He feels like the failed protagonist, the antagonist in fact. But with the scripts that Silo Theatre produce, you can expect the unexpected. Failing to understand that his female employee really does just want Mondays off, he proceeds to receive a ‘No’ to his marriage proposal in the third scene.  Confronted with a melon-eating woman sitting in a supermarket trolley in the dairy isle, he retires from the fray.  A mother, carrying her damaged daughter, visits her cave-woman mother to confront denial of female history. ‘He’ makes a brief appearance as a loin cloth wearing cave man, hardly reaching the stage before being dismissed.  The structure breaks down to a chaotic and exuberant ending so that the three women might also be failed protagonists. There are strong performances all round from Sophie Henderson, Michelle Ny and Amanda Tito. I also enjoyed the performance by stage manager, Eliza Josephson-Rutter, who casually sits at her visible station, looking at her phone and eating snacks. She throws costumes and props on stage with indifference, leaving actors holding props too long and with impeccable timing runs her cues to the wire. The stage really is a mess at the end, but with it all rolled up in the floor cloth and backdrops torn down, the stage is bare for the bows.

There is no satisfactory ending, just a passing cry to ‘do away with men’ as they exit, pushing or riding a theatrical skip on what looks like it’s going to be a long journey to gender equality.

I’m used to no satisfactory ending these days – we’re supposed to think about it. Grabbing a programme on the way out gives me reading material on the ferry back to Waiheke and the first thing I noticed is that Alice Birch’s script was first performed by the RSC at The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2014. That at least explains the bluebells.  Her inspiration for the play comes from the story of radical feminist, Valerie Solanas and her self-published SCUM Manifesto. ‘She then shot Andy Warhole and book sales went crazy.’ Um … does this mean with a camera?  So, typing ‘Who shot Andy Warhol’ into google, I find that he refused to make her film script as it was too dangerously radical, even for him, so she shot him with a gun. He was seriously wounded and never really recovered.  She went to prison and was diagnosed (conveniently?) as schizophrenic.

All this on International (at least in the western world) Women’s Day – a day in New Zealand when the news is full of a facebook post by Senior Wellington College school-boys, claiming that true WC boys should take advantage of unconscious drunk young women. We pretend to be shocked, some try to excuse but deep down we know there is a problem raising boys to men.  I wish I could remember and distill my mother’s method raising us. She claimed she always knew I was gay – I wonder if that influenced her. She was certainly always interested in diversity and difference.

It’s the small steps on a long journey which bring about change and there will be setbacks along the way. The courage of a Rugby team to go naked on a beach or attending thought-provoking theatre are such steps, but how do we erase phobias from human conditioning?

 

 

 

To Mandalay

 

Sandamuni Pagoda
Sandamuni Pagoda

The first Impression, flying in to Mandalay from Bangkok, is of bright blue roofs.  Closer to the ground green roofs emerge from the surrounding foliage. It’s not significant, just a change from orange, red or grey. The airport itself is new – a runway in the middle of a field – we are the only plane at the terminal. It’s reminiscent of the early days of Ryan Air and Easyjet in Europe, who flew into provincial upgraded airstrips two hours away from where you wanted to go.  Tour guide Richard and owner of Outside the Square  (almost independent travel for Gay men and their friends) is there to meet me.  There are others to arrive on a later flight so there’s time for coffee – a pale late – and to get cash out of an ATM. Two or three years ago there was only one in the whole country, now there are two at this airport and they pop up in the cities and Hotels.  Myanmar is gearing up for a future of tourism, so it’s good to be getting in before the rest of the world.  Mike and Ray, both from Auckland, emerge with damaged luggage.  Ray’s wheelie rucksack has a gaping compartment exposing all his pills and potions.

Priscilla interior
Priscilla interior

He’s cheerful enough about it and has brought along needle and thread to re-mend the tear. John and Nev, both from Christchurch are also on this flight so now we are six and the next introduction is to a bus nick-named Priscilla – after that camp Australian movie with Terrence Stamp in drag.  The Windows are adorned with a scalloped pelmet with mauve tassels.  Red and white fairy lights and lacy antimacassars on floral seats complete the picture. Priscilla (not her real name) belongs to the Mother-in-Law of our local guide, Georgie, who employs a driver and assistant Oo.           We galumph along a rolling dual carriage-way into the city at a sedate pace.  Myanmar is both a very ancient civilisation and an emerging country.  Ruled by strong in kings the 10 – 12th centuries, the country was subsumed by the British in the exploitative way of Empire.  The Japanese drove out the British in WW2 and were in turn defeated by the allies.  For decades now, the country has been ruled by Generals.  All the while the patient Burmese have continued, sustained by their Buddhist faith.  Their reward has been a democratically elected government lead by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Sandarmuni P)agoda
Sandarmuni P)agoda

We are staying at MaMa’s Guest house, owned and run by a woman called Sue.  She’s clearly looking to the future, preparing for the influx of tourists, (visas, previously issued for seven days, now last for twenty-eight) and she is building an extension. A new ground floor reception/dining room is complete and workmen are building two floors above for accommodation. Mark and Garry from San Francisco arrived the day before, so after sorting rooms and bags we 8 set off in Priscilla to the Sandamuni Pagoda.

Sandarmuni Pagoda
Sandarmuni Pagoda

Inscribed tables
Inscribed tables

The central stupa is surrounded by fields of small white stupas, each housing a marble tablet inscribed with the writings of Buddha.  It’s been described as a temple surrounded by the world’s larges book.  Richard has provided us each with a lungyi, the all purpose garment worn by men and women.  We’ve had instruction on how to tie them, a cause of much hilarity and varying degrees of success.  Basically it’s a tube of material and you have to step into it, draw one end up to waist level, hold it out on each side with your hands. There follows a movement best described as lifting and drawing together so the front stays up and the sides are brought to the centre, twisted around each other and tucked into either side of the centre tail which ends up looking a bit like a codpiece – cue more hilarity and size envy – as one might expect from a group of gay men old enough to know better.

Wearing of the Lungyi
Wearing of the Lungyi

We adopt the lungyi to visit the temples, mainly for respect. Though we are all wearing longish shorts there’s a chance of revealing a knee.  Shoes of course have to be removed, so I think we are going to get tough soles on this tour.  The Burmese of course have the most beautiful broad feet, un-spoilt by narrow fitting shoes.  This temple complex continues down the road, where preparations are being made for a celebration.

Terracotta dishes line the path
Terracotta dishes line the path

Terracotta dishes are being lined up along the paths, filled with oil, wicks added ad lit.  People are arriving in their finery and we learn that it’s Aung San Suu Kyi’s 71st birthday.  710 lamps have been lit.

filling the lamps
filling the lamps

A young man has a drone overlooking the scene.  We decide to stay on, postpone the next temple and rearrange our dinner time.

San band
San band

Sand band and dancers
Sand band and dancers

A band from the San area is playing and men dance in mock fights, one with gold painted wooden swords.  Aung San Suu Kyi is much revered and now her birthday can be celebrated more openly. It feels like an

Red Cross boys look to the lamps
Red Cross boys look to the lamps

honour to stay and share it with the people, who are so welcoming and accepting. The security guard and the Red Cross Brigade insist on being photographed with us. We as westerners are

Curiosities
Curiosities

curiosities but also a link to the rest of the world, although none of this is spoke … yet.  I just wonder what they would make of the extraordinary politics happening on the other side of their world at this moment.

girl with plate of food on head
girl with plate of food on head

The Pagoda lit
The Pagoda lit

Mama’s is cooking us dinner tonight and the last of our party, Richard from Titirangi and Peter from Perth arrive from a few days in Yangon, in time to eat: Chicken Burmese style; Spicy Aubergines; stir fried vegetables and tea salad (hot and delicious) and rice washed down with local beer. We sit around the table and introduce ourselves one by one.  Life stories are exchanged, questions asked and laughter shared. It’s a good start and it’s going to be a good group of people who have lived full and busy lives.