Remembering John Clarke

The recent and hugely successful appearance of Tinkering: the Complete Book of John Clarke is a wonderful if simultaneously sad reminder of just how much we lost last year when the great man passed away while walking in Victoria’s Grampians.

Clarke Tinkering

I was a foot soldier in a particular legion: those who encountered John occasionally but maintained a strong email connection that is now a treasured archive because of gems like these:

“I didn’t see much of ‘Top of the Lake’ but the bits I saw looked like ‘Truth’ shot with very expensive equipment.”

“Good evening and thanks. It’s like NZ in the 60s when a wealthy farmer who’d had quite an interesting war would appear on TV in a tweed jacket, viyella shirt and knitted tie, explaining that if the Japanese wanted more salt in their butter then they were welcome to bugger off and buy it from someone else. Entry level hubris and a lovely tribute to Lewis Carroll.”

“Quade [Cooper] looks to me like one of those footballers who is twinkletoes for about a season and a half and then drifts out of form, imagines himself still a contender and ends up running a pub somewhere, quickly running to fat and being picked up for driving an unregistered vehicle.”

“Neill, S[am]. was in Melbourne a few years ago for some sort of Central Otago pinots festival and I was his date. There were many many pinots; all were good and some of them seemed to come up behind us. I’m recovering nicely and expect to be back on the solids shortly. Macleod, E[uan]. is a fine painter and may even know something about these pinots.”

Clarkeian observations on life, politics, sport, film, the media, art, literature and so much else were always insightful, shrewd and invariably funny, as Tinkering reflects.

In the uproarious “Saint Paul’s Letter to the Electorates”, for example, Clarke casts a Biblical account of Australia’s political trajectory from Kevin Rudd’s arrival to Julia Gillard seeing off Tony Abbott with the assistance of Bob Brown who was also Green. JC’s observations en passant are comic genius: “a man called Peter” was, of course, Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil and Minister for Pink Batts, “a maker of music and a dancer, although he was rather jerky in this latter discipline and it maketh complete sense that he got out of that line of work”. When Peter “spake” as a politician, “people lost all hope. And their eyes glazeth over, and their heads droopeth and in some cases they slippeth into repose.”

Kevin, meanwhile, reassured the hordes that “thou art blessed, for I am thy leader” to which said hordes responded, “bloweth thee not thine own trumpet too loudly, for the walls that come tumbling down might be thine own.” Inevitably, then, Kevin “looseth the plot’ to be lined up by Arbib and Shorten (remember him?) who went to Julia saying “it’s your job to tell Kevin. We’ll hold your coat. And it was on for young and old”. To Josephine Public, they were all wankers. For Clarke, “spillers of seed”.

The appearance of the first in what threatens to be a series of Rudd’s own gospels at the same time as the infinitely more succinct Tinkerings merely underlines how sharp, observant and wry John Clarke was on politics as on all else. Any reasonable and many unreasonable readers will clock how absurd this all was, how frighteningly real.

Then the very next piece after that political spray features Terry Lineen, remembered only by avid New Zealand rugby fans of a particular age, with shards that skewer the modern game specifically and modern sport altogether:

In those days there were four tests a year rather than one a week and they

actually mattered. Nobody sang the national anthem and if a player scored

a try he returned to his position in solitude and waited until the fuss died down

Nobody got paid. The players all had other jobs.

Reading this just as Lima Sopoaga announced he was leaving New Zealand All Black rugby for the English club scene at a massive salary was further reminder of just how good a long sweep analyst John was – he might well have belonged among the Annales school of French historians who espoused the longue duree.

John doubtless preferred the earlier era in sport, as reflected here in his tributes to Peter Thomson, Marjorie Jackson Nelson and Murray Rose. Concomitantly, he preferred the earlier commentary styles to those that now more resemble a national cheer squad than a set of sober analysts. Recently I sat next to a well known cricket “journalist” who constantly referenced matches “we” (“Astraya”) were playing in India, the Sahara, Uzbekistan or somewhere in the outer reaches of the Maldives. Clarke would have loved the geography way more than the craven partisanship.

And then comes the reverential essay on Seamus Heaney that underlines both John Clarke’s knowledge and his supreme ability with words:

[Heaney] still holds a poetry book the way a farmer holds an almanac of

cattle prices and crop yields. He is practical, friendly and weather-wise

and when amused, as he often is, his eyes close with pleasure. The Heaney

nucleus also features an instinct for the resolving chord in things;

for finding the balance in words and ideas.

There is a continuity here. Up in Wellington away back then John Clarke, a year or two behind me in New Zealand’s “new to the university” race, was already looking to probe the national Kiwi psyche. As this book shows, his journey to that point was remarkable enough with parents whose cultural interests put a range of astonishing people into their son’s world: James K. Baxter, the New Zealand poet and cultist; W.H. Auden’s teacher; novelist Anthony Burgess; actress Ngaire Dawn Porter; Barry Crump, New Zealand’s harbinger of Australia’s Harry Butler and Steve Irwin, and a host of others.

Fred Dagg

The cultural probe then appeared as Fred Dagg, the shorts and singlet clad, gumboot-wearing farmer whose sunhat failed to tame a range of errant hair, and whose opening lines to camera might be “Gidday. I’d like to have a word or two with you about the Socratic Paradox, which, without being too technical about it, is a paradox worked out by the late Socrates in order to explain the pitfalls involved in explaining things.”

Dagg became and remains a Kiwi touchstone. A generation or so of followers found in him a quintessentially New Zealand humour that was new, distinctive, national, and not English even though Dagg and alter ego were avid followers of Milligan and the Goons. And it was funny. Tinkering has a hilarious House of Clarke interpretation of real estate and its purveyors. “A ‘cottage’ is a caravan with the wheels taken off” while “’magnificent’ view is an indication that the house has windows”.

If there was a recurrent theme from that time on in among the humour, insight, bubble pricking and general piss taking satire, then for me it was a kindly meant scepticism.

Recall, for example, all the marvellous characters who appeared in the Clarke and Dawe cameo over all those years.

Clarke and Dawe

One of the many classics was the mock interview with the then Senator Bob Collins, a Minister at the time a tanker was involved in a major accident and oil spill off the Australian coast. In what follows, Collins aka Clarke is interviewed by Dawe:

[Interviewer:] This ship that was involved in the incident off Western Australia this week…

[Senator Collins:] Yeah, the one the front fell off?

[Interviewer:] Yeah

[Senator Collins:] That’s not very typical, I’d like to make that point.

[Interviewer:] Well, how is it untypical?

[Senator Collins:] Well, there are a lot of these ships going around the world all the time, and very seldom does anything like this happen … I just don’t want people thinking that tankers aren’t safe.

[Interviewer:] Was this tanker safe?

[Senator Collins:] Well I was thinking more about the other ones…

[Interviewer:] The ones that are safe,,,

[Senator Collins:] Yeah,,, the ones the front doesn’t fall off.

[Interviewer:] Well, if this wasn’t safe, why did it have 80,000 tonnes of oil on it?

[Senator Collins:] Well, I’m not saying it wasn’t safe, it’s just perhaps not quite as safe as some of the other ones.

[Interviewer:] Why?

[Senator Collins:] Well, some of them are built so the front doesn’t fall off at all.

[Interviewer:] Wasn’t this built so the front wouldn’t fall off?

[Senator Collins:] Well, obviously not.

[Interviewer:] “How do you know?”

[Senator Collins:] Well, ‘cause the front fell off, and 20,000 tons of crude oil spilled into the sea, caught fire. It’s a bit of a give-away.” I would just like to make the point that that is not normal.

[Interviewer:] Well, what sort of standards are these oil tankers built to?

[Senator Collins:] Oh, very rigorous … maritime engineering standards.

[Interviewer:] What sort of things?

[Senator Collins:] Well the front’s not supposed to fall off, for a start.

[Interviewer:] And what other things?

[Senator Collins:] Well, there are … regulations governing the materials they can be made of

[Interviewer:] What materials?

[Senator Collins:] Well, Cardboard’s out

[Interviewer:] And?

[Senator Collins:] …No cardboard derivatives…

[Interviewer:] Like paper?

[Senator Collins:]. … No paper, no string, no cellotape. …

[Interviewer:] Rubber?

[Senator Collins:] No, rubber’s out .. Um, They’ve got to have a steering wheel. There’s a minimum crew requirement.”

[Interviewer:] What’s the minimum crew?

[Senator Collins:] Oh,… one, I suppose.

[Interviewer:] So, the allegations that they are just designed to carry as much oil a possible and to hell with the consequences, I mean that’s ludicrous…

[Senator Collins:] Ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous. These are very, very strong vessels

[Interviewer:] So what happened in this case?

[Senator Collins:] Well, the front fell off in this case by all means, but that’s very unusual.

[Interviewer:] But Senator Collins, why did the front bit fall off?

[Senator Collins:] Well, a wave hit it.

[Interviewer:] A wave hit it?

[Senator Collins:] A wave hit the ship.

[Interviewer:] Is that unusual?

[Senator Collins:] Oh, yeah… At sea? …Chance in a million.

[Interviewer:] So what do you do to protect the environment in cases like this?

[Senator Collins:] Well, the ship was towed outside the environment.

[Interviewer:] Into another environment….

[Senator Collins:] No, no, no. it’s been towed beyond the environment, it’s not in the environment

[Interviewer:] Yeah, but from one environment to another environment.

[Senator Collins:] No, it’s beyond the environment, it’s not in an environment. It has been towed beyond the environment.

[Interviewer:] Well, what’s out there?

[Senator Collins:] Nothing’s out there…

[Interviewer:] Well there must be something out there

[Senator Collins:] There is nothing out there… all there is …. is sea …and birds ….and fish

[Interviewer:] And?

[Senator Collins:] And 20,000 tons of crude oil

[Interviewer:] And what else?

[Senator Collins:] And a fire

[Interviewer:] And anything else?

[Senator Collins:] And the part of the ship that the front fell off, but there’s nothing else out there.

[Interviewer:] Senator Collins thanks for joining us.

[Senator Collins:] It’s a complete void

[Interviewer:] Yeah, We’re out time

[Senator Collins:] The environment’s perfectly safe. …. We’re out of time?.. Can you book me a cab?

[Interviewer:] But didn’t you come in a commonwealth car?

[Senator Collins:] Yes, I did, but

[Interviewer:] What happened?

[Senator Collins:] The front fell off

Those hapless humans were all lampooned, but somehow you related to and even liked them despite their personal and professional deficiencies. They were everyone, person ordinaire, “there but for the grace of God go I” and “I know a bloke just like that” sort of people. When the politicians’ now favourite “does this pass the pub test” line came along, I wondered if they had ever watched JC because in many ways he invented that examination.

A myriad of examples capture all this, but the supposed interview with a “foreign correspondent” reporting from Washington on the 2016 Presidential race is among the best.  There is the cynical interviewer, the jaded correspondent, a disdain for politics and a quiet fatalism. Clarke at his best.

Since he left us it has been galling to wonder what he might have done with Malcolm Turnbull being fined for not wearing a life jacket; Australian politicians discovering they were ineligible to be in parliament because of claimed to be unknown dual citizenship (I would have loved to see Clarke on “Kiwi” Barnaby Joyce); the same sex marriage plebiscite; the latest throes of BREXIT; the rise of Jacindamania in New Zealand; Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un; Peter Dutton for Prime Minister and all the rest.

Sadly, we miss all that and more but Tinkering reminds us of what we had. John Clarke was and remains great.






Modern Crusades

Again, not sure where that time went but while it disappeared the world went mad. It now seems most members of the Australian parliament are ineligible to be there, thanks to the arcane wording of Section 44 in the Australian constitution created over a century ago. There is now a crusade against “otherness” at a time when “the other” actually dominates Australian life.

“Across the ditch”, as we say in this part of the world, a complex voting system sees New Zealand’s prime Minister coming from the second-only largest party in parliament, aided and abetted by a self-serving narcissist whose party lost support in the election along with the Greens whose vote halved. Kiwis, though, have shrugged it off whereas in Canberra the hysteria has risen rather than subsided.

Further afield, Harvey Weinstein’s outing as a predator has produced an avalanche of similar revelations, with Kevin Spacey decrowned as a great on-screen “bad” guy and installed as a real life one. Meanwhile America lurches continuously from reality show to farce and counter-farce with the Muppets apparently having taken over international relations. Crusades abound here.

Oh, and it looks like Rupert “the dirty digger” Murdoch might just have been done over by a toxic mix involving FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) and the Saudi royal family’s internal coup d’état.

You could not make this up, really, so I could plausibly claim to having been off air deliberately. Sadly, it was just bad organisation and a bigger than normal range of things to do that have had me shuttling between Queenstown and Sydney for a few months in connection with a non-writing project.

Amidst all that, though, I finished writing a true crime biography about Etienne Jean Brocher, a troubled French kid who, aged seventeen in 1874, ran away to New Zealand and was promptly jailed for theft. Then he married the daughter of a French settler, became a photographer, racked up debts and family problems so ran away again, back to France. Entering the army he was jailed, then sent to Algeria to be jailed again and dishonourably discharged from one of the world’s worst military units, a spectacular achievement. Banned from France now, he went back to New Zealand, married again without first divorcing, then was found guilty of a double murder he might not have done. Brocher was executed by a drunk who was New Zealand’s hangman for forty years.

Brocher’s defence lawyer bred the 1916 Melbourne Cup winner – Rekindling won it this past week 101 years later. For New Zealanders, winning the Cup is almost as big a crusade as the All Blacks winning in perpetuity.

Now the Brocher book is finding a publishing home. One highlight during this “silent” period was a couple of days spent in Auckland at the Michael King Centre’s Writers Weekend with a gaggle of other people who spend their lives putting words on paper.   It was great listening to New Zealand luminaries like C.K. Stead who admitted to years of being nervous when lecturing to students at Auckland University, a reminder that no one was taught how to teach at university back then and in some cases even now. One magic session was with Jef Kay who demonstrated how writers might better use Facebook. Yes, FANG struck there, too, a timely reminder of how the world is changing.

As we all know, that change extends into publishing as well.   There are more and more writers but fewer and fewer traditional outlets, hence the rise of self-publishing and derivatives thereof. Several publishers spoke revealingly about all this, so we all went away reminded that if you want to write and appear in the bookstores, then you’d better be damned good. That means endless tinkering with books like mine on Brocher, the endless efforts to make it right.

Somewhere in there I also found time to do a screen writing course at NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Arts here in Sydney) that has led to a new friend, Marc Rosenberg who ran the course and is also a great fan of Dodgers baseball. When they lost the recent World Series to the Astros, Marc and I mixed baseball tragic with screenplay principles. After all, searching for that first pennant since 1989 is a crusade, too.

That screenplay approach is entering the broader prose writing world to good effect and is a useful thing to know about – though I do have ideas for a film and a play as well.   Now where will that time come from?

And there has been time to read. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is being re-read.   It was held up last year as a marker to how Trump won and Clinton lost all those traditionally democratic states. They were each on a crusade. I’m not sure the book is that great a guide there, but it is a fabulous read about America in change as well as an analysis of a significant subculture. And the guy can write, too, a great point of difference.

The Whites

It does not always work, though, it seems. One of the best novels/crime fiction I have read in the past few years is The Whites by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt. It is about cops righting wrongs, as they see it, and Price just gets it all right: characters, plot, story line, setting, context. Yet it won very few if any prizes while other, in my view, lesser books did. Who knows how it all works?

Mind you, there have also been some great winners. Jane Harper’s The Dry has won justifiably just about everything going including a Ned Kelly Award in Australia and the Gold Dagger in the UK. Adrian McKinty’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly has been similarly successful as has Mick Herron’s Spook Street. There is some great stuff out there.

And I have been reading plays, too. Several years ago I saw one of the best stage plays ever, Hugh Whitemore’s A Letter of Resignation set around Harold Macmillan and the Profumo affair. Reading it is a joy: the prose/dialogue is marvellous and so is the spare capturing of characters. His A Great Year For Plums is similarly terrific on the Suez Crisis, mixing political and personal lives.

This mix of crusade and writing led me to a book on the man who indirectly helped me become an historian. Way back then I arrived at history as a choice after being disillusioned by geography and English in their university shapes. And I was none too enthralled by history, either, until I happened to do a course on the Crusades taught by J.J. Saunders, a legendary teacher at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. At the heart of that course was a three volume work imaginatively titled A History of the Crusades that had appeared about a decade earlier.

Inevitably, when looked at now, it was written from the viewpoint of the “Crusaders” themselves, those Westerners gone out to what we now call the “Middle East” (an early twentieth century term coined by journalist Sir Valentine Chirol) to overthrow the Muslim states that had emerged there following the rise of the Prophet. It would be 1978 before Edward Said’s Orientalism turned the telescope around and inspired works like Amin Malouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

Runciman Crusades

Sir Steven Runciman wrote that three volume work that switched me into history. He told a story based around people and personality, captured moment and detail while maintaining narrative sweep and direction. Above all, he made it exotic and meaningful. Years later, I remembered all that as I scrambled through Kraak des Chevaliers in Syria, Karak in Jordan and all those other castles that were part of the Crusades. Because of Runciman, when I did that I felt like Salah-ad-Din (Saladin in the West) and Richard the Lionheart were right there with me. History lived, because of Runciman.

So when I spotted Minoo Dinshaw’s Outlandish Knight: the Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman in Sydney’s Abbey Bookshop, I grabbed it enthusiastically.


It is massive, and probably should have been edited back. Being Minshaw’s first book, he put into it just about every scrap of information possible and elaborated on all of them so that the storyline sometimes disappears for a few pages. That is not unusual, and was not what made me come away disappointed.

That came from Runciman himself, or at least the way he emerges from the book. Born into a wealthy and influential family he was also bright, ferociously so, and took to languages as easily as he did to writing and researching (even if he was not an “archive rat” as the modern profession demands, he was a secondary sources man predominantly). Because of the wealth and the family networks, he was at the heart of the Establishment with that link contoured further by his being gay.

Had he lived into these Weinsteinian and Spaceyrian times he might well have been described as a privileged predator who ran personal vendettas, won coveted positions for reasons other than professional, was arrogant, opinionated and snobbish while being self-obsessed to the utmost. For me, he emerged as an unsympathetic character, an exploiter of people, positions and power.

That goes immediately to a question for our times. In Australia, for example, the artist Donald Friend was a celebrated figure until his private diaries, lodged in the National Library of Australia, revealed him as having been a serial pederast, especially on the island of Bali where he lived for several years. Now his works are displayed rarely, and their value has declined. These days we have somehow to separate Spacey from the work: House of Cards is a major achievement (I prefer the earlier English version but this new one is brilliant and started the Netflix revolution), as was much of his work on the London stage. How do we regard that?

Before the Fall

The Runciman story comes in two parts for me. I still regard his Crusades trilogy as a marvellous, pre-Saidian achievement that did get me into history. The second is a reminder that no work is clinically detached from its writer, good or bad. That I remembered when happening upon a review of my A House in Damascus: before the Fall. The reviewer thought me “a very leftwing liberal who blames the West for branding Syria a terrorist country incorrectly”. Where would I begin unpacking that? The point, though, is that whatever I right has an angle, and whoever reads whatever I write brings to it another.

For that we should be grateful because it means we can struggle towards resolving contested problems like all those that headed this piece. And it also means I can still remember Runciman as the man who helped steer me towards history and writing. For that I am extremely grateful.


Not Wasting Away

As usual, it took the great Jimmy Buffett to put some perspective on things.

The past four months have been a blur. In rough order I wrote and anguished over a murder mystery dinner at a local resort; mixed with a stack of wonderful artists; toured some wonderful American friends down the fabulous West Coast of New Zealand; did a few photographic assignments; helped deliver a higher education development project in Sydney; became involved in developing a local community arts group; did some archival research for a new book; and then, of course, delivered the cruise lectures between China and India alluded to in the previous (and lamentably long ago) post to this blog.


The two weeks in India that followed were spent in Mumbai, Udaipur, Jaipur and Delhi. Udaipur was the knockout as we stayed in an old style haveli looking out over Lake Pachola and spent time searching for fabrics and other craft works, and finding great food. If you ever doubt climate change, though, the heatwave has hit northern India early this year. Both Jaipur and Delhi were 40C in late March, close to 10C above the normal range.

Being back in India was wonderful and we met some great new friends. It all reminded me why I have spent so much time there and written so much about it over so many years.

The day after we got back to Queenstown my brother Ian and wife Rhonda arrived from Perth to spend terrific time with us. Then we headed to Christchurch where, first, I gave a lecture at the University of Canterbury, my alma mater, did more archival research, then was photographer at a family wedding involving Dylan, the eldest son of my brother Lindsay and his wife Jen, and Haley Beckemeyer from the USA whose parents and siblings made the long journey out. That was another great occasion.


While we were there, however, Sandi noticed that Jimmy Buffett would be playing in Christchurch the following Friday night. So we drove six hours back to Queenstown, I processed all the photographs, then we drove six hours back for Jimmy.

We have been forever fans of his “country & ocean” work, and he is one of the greatest singer songwriters of his generation, the master of the one liner. He wrote Five O’Clock Somewhere, Alan Jackson’s great hit that underscored his genius:

The work day passes like molasses in wintertime

I’m getting paid by the hour and older by the minute

Now if I could write like that.


We are such fans that way back in the last millennium when we went first to the Caribbean, we chartered a yacht for a week to go to St Bart’s (Saint-Barthelemy) from St Martin. Why? Because at that time Jimmy owned a bar there, the Autour de Rocher, commemorated later in a song of the same name. (He likes bars. One of his performance lines is that a particular episode in his life occurred because he “was over-served in a bar”. Marvellous). The yacht was owned by a Frenchwoman, a brilliant chef, and skippered by a Frenchman who had lived in the region for years and completed several Atlantic crossings in small boats. We got to St Bart’s, paid homage at the bar, sailed back, saw the rich and famous in their super yachts, and spent a magic afternoon sailing of Anguilla, up on the bow, sipping Heinekens, listening to Jimmy on Walkmans (yes, it was a way back), and watching the dolphins who came along for the trip.

Consequently, the Live In Anguilla double album is the most played item in my iTunes collection.

On a more sombre note, many years later when my great friend Ken McPherson died I was back in India and unable to be at his funeral. We had planned to write a book together on Seringapatam, the fort town in southern India where in 1799 Arthur Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington) defeated Tipu Sultan to finalise British power in India. On the day of the funeral I had travelled to Seringapatam, climbed through some fences, found a place on the ruined ramparts, and during the time of the service texted back to Perth:

Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late

The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothing to plunder

I’m an over-forty victim of fate

Arriving too late, arriving too late

(Buffett, J. A Pirate Looks At Forty)


Later again, I got to a Buffett concert at the fairgrounds in Tampa, Florida and it was one of the great experiences. The gig was great, of course, but so was everything else. The “parrotheads” (his fans) had arrived two days early to jam the parking lot and party. One guy arrived in a pickup truck towing a sailboat around which he dotted plastic palm trees and spread several bags of sand, then set up a bar. My friend pointed out some serious fans wearing hula skirts and not much else. Each year, he told me, they donated money to a local university to fund PhD research into the Caribbean ocean environments.

No wonder we like the guy, then, but what does that have to do with anything that opened this post?

Well, it gets busy sometimes and I start to whinge that it is all a problem, I’m not writing enough, or it’s all out of control, or something of all of those or along the same lines. As Sandi points out, though, quoting Buffet, J. “it’s my own damn fault” (from the immortal Margaritaville) and that, really, it is a hell of a problem to have.

Indeed, and Jimmy’s most recent concert reminded me of that:

Like a novel from the five and time

Take another road in another time

(Take Another Road)

Those roads and times this year already have taken me around the South Island and out to Australia, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Colombo and India. And while I haven’t written I have read and have lined up a lot to read and learn from.

In the former category Jane Harper’s The Dry is simply a revelation of fabulous writing. Ovidia Yu’s Aunty Lee’s Delights is set in Singapore and attracted me because of its Straits Chinese community focus. Ankush Saikia’s Dead Meat tells a grim story of the modern and sprawling Delhi. Chan Ho-kei’s The Borrowed is a very clever episodic story of cops and robbers set in Hong Kong. And Keigo Higashimo’s The Devotion of Suspect X deserves all the praise lavished on it because the plot and storyline are among the cleverest you will find.

The lined up to be read list is headed by someone I should have read a long time ago. Jacqueline Winspeare’s Maisie Dobbs books have thousands of adoring Amazon fans, so thanks to long standing friend Angela Bollard for tipping me off. I also have Susan Oleksiw’s Anita Ray’s mysteries to read and am looking forward to those because they are set in Kerala, and because Susan also has an academic background in India as well.

On top of that we binge-watched the British TV series, The Game, a slightly odd but compelling spy story set in the 1970s. Now watching Blindspot where a tattooed woman is left in a bag in Times Square in New York. In the search for her identity it emerges (a) that she may be an off the radar SEAL as well as (b) the lead investigator’s neighbourhood friend who went missing twenty years earlier. In spite of some OTT moments it is one of those rare American shows that has a great presence. Another is Grace and Frankie in which two husbands and law partners abandon their wives to set up as a gay couple. The wives (Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin) are forced to move in together as the seriously odd couple of functioning alcoholic control freak and 1960s hippie refugee. They are marvellous, but Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen do not work as well. The latest season of Homeland awaits, along with a few other new series.

In a couple of weeks I get to go to the Dunedin Writer’s Festival and hear Ian Rankin, Stella Duffy and John Lanchester among others.    That will be inspiring, and help further propel me to finish the true crime book and the other things I am trying to complete so I can then focus on the new projects lined up already.

It’s those changes in latitudes

Changes in attitudes nothing remains quite the same

With all of our running and all of our cunning

If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.

(Changes In Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes)

Thanks Jimmy, we are of an age and attitude.


Every now and then, inspiration comes along in unexpected form to boost ideas and, sometimes, “output” as now described in modern parlance.

The last few months have been and the next couple will be mad, in the sense that the timetable is packed. But great, in that we are seeing friends and family as well as preparing for the latest series of cruise ship lectures.

Those will be delivered on board Holland America’s Amsterdam for the Xingang (China) through to Mumbai (India) sector of the annual Round The World voyage.

As usual there will be a wild mix of subjects including: the modern history of Shanghai, South China Sea excitement, French Indo-China, how Mr. Honda’s small motor bike changed Southeast Asia, the Straits Chinese, Indian Ocean tensions, India’s business and labour world and, of course, cricket in India. There is a bit of work in putting this all together across history, art, literature and the rest, but I have fun delivering them and we end up befriending some of the passengers.

Comments from those passengers over the series help shape my approach to this, so I now see the lectures more as stories or tales and am always on the lookout for an amazing character or feature or event that helps shape the pitch.

In a way it is like working up an approach to a publisher or an agent: what magic bit in here grabs the audience?

The Honda story is a great example. Anyone who has visited Southeast Asia talks about the traffic, especially the motorbikes. Working from that and showing all the mad things that occur (eight people on a bike, cages of ducks etc), I describe how the new mobility enabled by the bikes has changed small business, family ties, and even personal relationships and dating patterns. So when people then see the traffic again, they have an added insight into what it all means, hopefully.

The lectures rest heavily on visual imagery and representation, and the search for those images has made me more aware of “looking” for the new or the alternative. I was reminded of that by the sad news that John Berger had died after a full and productive life. His Ways Of Seeing was a sociology that had an early impact on my thinking and outlook.   So did Edward Said’s Orientalism.   And it is no accident that both of those works lurk throughout the cruise lectures. Both works emphasised the importance of the visual in the formation and transformation of cultures, and the impact of those visuals on the evolution of attitudes and outlooks of people and society. In that way they were helped, too, by the work of Roland Barthes, the great French analyst who also had an impact on me. His Empire of Signs, for example, gave a marvellous insight into Japanese life and culture.

Just recently, we were on the New Zealand South Island’s West Coast with some Australian friends (and will be there again soon with some wonderful American friends we met on one of the ships and who hosted us in Michigan last year). While there, I took the opportunity to drive up to Okarito, a tiny place famous for three things.


First, the white heron/great egret (or kotoku in Maori) colony discovered first in 1865. The bird is found in China, Japan, India and Australia as well as New Zealand where this is the only breeding site. The beautiful plumage became desirable so that by 1941 there were just four nests left. The place was declared a reserve and every breeding season there might be up to 250 birds in residence.

This is the only place to see them en masse in New Zealand that requires a trip with the excellent local tour company, well worth the effort.

You might, however, glimpse a kotoku elsewhere in the area, like this one in a tributary of the Waiatoto River further to the south.


(Imagine, though, the sense of irony in the ease of seeing these ones outside the walls and nets of the Osaka Zoo in Japan before another Holland America voyage).


Second, Okarito has been the long time home of Keri Hulme, winner of the 1985 Booker Prize with what to this point has been her only book, The Bone People. The mystical elements in the book were all inspired by her surroundings and upbringing, and every interview with her really emphasises that fact.

Third, and significant here, Okarito now hosts the gallery run by Andris Apse, probably New Zealand’s best and certainly its most well known landscape photographer. It was this gallery I drove up to see, and to meet Andris who is a wonderfully approachable and down to earth person whose humility is hugely at odds with the magnificent and expansive New Zealand images he produces.

In many ways his work has been some of the most influential in representing the “natural”, “pure” New Zealand so loved by tourists and tourist operators.

Of course, there is no doubting the impact of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit as shot by Peter Jackson – while writing this I am looking out to Kelvin Heights where some scenes from LOTR were shot, and my neighbour’s film safety company is just one of the many recipients of all that those films and others have produced.

Around the world, though, Andris Apse has produced images for over forty years that have shaped a view of New Zealand as this majestic, mystical and almost magical place where there is always tranquillity, beauty and reinvigoration. Traffic woes in Auckland, house prices in Queenstown, the struggle for economic survival on the Coast itself, the cost as well as the benefit of the mushrooming dairy industry, and the infrastructure challenges brought on by all those tourists do not really appear here – but their backdrop make me and others think about how that wonderful world Andris portrays is to be preserved.


As I drove back down to Haast from Okarito through the persistent rain, I was inspired to stop and take some photographs myself. New Zealand does that to you. That is why occasionally here now you will drive around a bend to find a car or a campervan parked in the middle of the road, its occupants out taking photographs. That is a local hazard in the Southern Lakes.

But I was also thinking about how, like artists and photographers, writers are also really trying to form and transfer images or depictions of people, places and events. That is why we aspire to be like them, to be as good as them at creating compelling pictures of how something happens.

And that is why the best of them are so good, and why they make it so easy. Ian Rankin’s latest, Rather Be The Devil, is an excellent example. Dialogue and story both flow effortlessly, the characters are compelling. It is as if he had simply sat down and rolled it out.

As Andris Apse comments, though, images that look like divine and opportune moments when the photographer just happened along are, almost always, the culmination of an enormous amount of work, planning and time. He has a wonderful panoramic shot of Okarito and its lagoon, for example. In reality, he imagined the shot, created a shooting point, then visited that point regularly for two years before capturing the image he had imagined at the outset.

That is just like Rankin’s writing and that of, say, Val McDermid, Phillip Kerr, Sarah Paretsky, Michael Connolly, Tess Gerritsen, Peter Temple, Jane Harper, Greg McGee/Alix Bosco and Paddy Richardson among so many others.

When surveying their imagery, then, we must think also about all the work that went into creating that work, as we do when taking in the wonderful images from people like Andris Apse.

And, of course, as writers, we are reminded constantly of the need to work harder at producing the very best possible imagery, that is the on-going challenge.

Cruising For Insight

Just back from the latest cruise lecture series, this time on the Holland America Line’s ms Noordam.   We joined the ship in Honolulu, Hawaii and left it in Sydney, Australia. On the way the stops were at Lahaina in Maui, Hilo on the Big Island, Pago Pago in American Samoa, Suva and Dravuni Island in Fiji, Port Vila in Vanuatu then Lifou Island and Noumea in New Caledonia.

For everyone else it was a twenty day cruise, for me it was a nine lecture one. I am billed as a “location” speaker so that means I talk on destination-related subjects. This time it was a regional Pacific approach that dealt with adventurers, travellers, explorers, writers, artists and covered history, international relations, anthropology, culture, tradition and change.


It was great fun and because it was a big ship, some of the crowds were standing room only, about 700 or so. No pressure, then. But the people were great as always, lots of interest and questions and follow up. There were Americans, Dutch, Australians, Brits, others from Europe, and New Zealanders among others. So there was lots of good banter about yet another All Black victory over the Wallabies, my Dodgers falling to the Cubs in the National League, plenty of incredulous discussion about the American elections and the state of world politics. This was a good crowd.

And some of these terrific people became friends, as always on these cruises. (Plenty of emails about the baseball and about travel respectively from people like Lyn Griffiths and Marily and Clint Sampson met on earlier cruises). Among these new people: Sandy Aloisi to whom you can listen from 5.30 am onwards on ABC Radio News in Australia; her husband and politics guru Mark Spurway who heads Transmission Network Services at the ABC and so makes it all possible; the legendary Iain Macintosh who was a long time foreign correspondent for the ABC before joining CNN where he became a senior vice-president, and Ian’s wife Denise who has so many wonderful stories about the expat life. Many, many great stories told and heard about the Australian and international media over drinks before and during dinner!

For me there was also the chance to read a bit on the way to, during and coming back from the assignment.

It started with crime fiction, of course. M.J. Lee’s Death in Shanghai is the first in a series that features Inspector Danilov, a Russian working in the international force in Shanghai in the 1920s.    It gets the place and the period very well. Slaughter Park is the final book in Barry Maitland’s Belltree Trilogy set in New South Wales but with some of its characters escaping to places like Vanuatu and elsewhere.   Maitland writes as well as anyone but for me, the conclusion to the series strained belief a touch. Charles Cumming’s A Foreign Country is a rightly acclaimed international spy thriller.   Maurice Gee’s Crime Story is an older New Zealand work that I never got around to reading.   Gee is one of New Zealand’s great writers and this one is good but possibly not the best in genre even if he catches Wellington wonderfully and some of the major Kiwi social concerns. Then there was Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Man Booker shortlisted His Bloody Project, a curious and compelling historical crime work set in remote rural Scotland.

The non-fiction included David Lodge’s Quite a Good Time to be Born, a first memoir.   Lodge remains among my most favourite campus novel writers, along with his great friend Malcolm Bradbury. This memoir reads well and has some deep moments as well as outlining some of his major breakthroughs and setbacks. It is perhaps a little rushed, though, and I look forward to the next instalment that will cover his later academic period.

John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: the Publishing Business has been one of my best recent reads.    It is the definitive account of changes to the publishing industry: the concentration of power in a few hands, the importance of the rise of the literary agent, and the rise of the web, and all the interrelated significant matters. For a writer it is fascinating and, I suggest, a must read because it explains why so many now are trying and why so few succeed.

But as always, the travel also gave me the chance to observe and learn, and think. There is something odd about fifteen hundred or so passengers getting onto an island like Dravuni that has a total population of about one hundred and fifty. And there is always the closeness of global impact when the woman there who gave Sandi a massage has a son working as a chef at the Hermitage Hotel at Aoraki/Mount Cook in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

There is the chance to see some great natural wonders. We left Hilo on the Big Island in the early evening and at about nine that night the captain had us holding no more than seven hundred yards away from the lava flow of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. That was truly spectacular, and memorable.


In Honolulu, a bike tour along the North Shore with its famous surf beaches was a highlight, thanks to guide Kelly. Sunset, Waimea, Pipeline were all flat ahead of the huge winter surf, but the turtles were at Turtle Beach. Lunch at Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck was a highlight.

Coming into Sydney through the heads at dawn was also memorable, especially having just delivered a lecture that began with Australia’s convict past. It was easy to imagine the First Fleet sailing in back then in 1788, though the convicts were unlikely to have been crowding the decks like the passengers on the Noordam.


Simple moments like a terrific lunch overlooking the Pacific in Lahaina were there as well, and in Port Vila and Noumea. One spectacular result of history came in Suva, at a south Indian food outlet up on the fourth floor food court of a new mall. It had the best south Indian food I have had outside of south India itself, despite a visiting Englishman suggesting that back in his country they had “real” curries.

Those simple moments included people. Like the fireman who came to talk with us as we sheltered from the rain at his station in Pago Pago. He has relatives in New Zealand, Australia and the USA. And like Albert in Pago Pago who invited us into his simple fish shop to have a look at the local catch that is getting depleted, as it is elsewhere in the Pacific. (I gave a lecture on the fishing industry and, of course, there were at least two professionals in the audience. Luckily they gave me a god mark along with some tips on changes in places like Tasmania and Western Australia.

That was just another aspect of being able to observe the impact of history because the Pacific, of course, has been in the eye of international ambition and annexation for centuries. It is amazing to think that a place like American Samoa has the highest representation into the military proportionate to population of any American state or territory.    That is one result of a long term American presence in the Pacific since the nineteenth century. The French centres in Vanuatu and New Caledonia simply reflect the results of a long term French interest in the region, too, one that reached its low point with the nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll and the later bombing of the Rainbow Warrior by French agents in Auckland Harbour.. Then there is the high Indian presence in Fiji that dates from the indentured labour schemes that began back in the 1870s and in recent years have sparked much international controversy and tension.

Now it is back to reality and the writing projects, but I remain hugely grateful for the privilege of doing these cruises, seeing these fascinating places and meeting so many marvellous people.

Out and About In The World



Sandi and I have just returned from an extended visit to the USA that was full of interest and incident, and that confirmed just how small the world is now.

The main purpose target was ThrillerfestXI, the annual convention of the International Thriller Writers.

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What a gathering. Along the way I met the legendary Walter Mosley, a standout speaker in a star host. I spent time with Peter James, one of the UK’s best and most successful writers and the international coordinator for ITW. And not to forget meeting that other legend, Lawrence Block who has been writing forever. Among those heard during the 8 am to 8 pm days: Steve Berry, Gillian Flynn, Karin Slaughter, Lee Child (also got to meet him), Linwood Barclay, David Morrell (another former academic), the amazing R.L. (Bob) Stine, Heather Graham, Tess Gerritsen, Jeff Deaver, Meg Gardiner and many more.

There was the fun of being on a panel chaired by Simon Toyne and sitting alongside Valentina Giambanco whose first book I had read and admired. The others included Douglas Stewart, an English lawyer who has worked in Vegas; Ward Larsen, a commercial airline pilot; Bill Shweigart, formerly in the US Coast Guard; and Leonardo Wild, based in Ecuador and script writer as well as thriller merchant.

The first two days were for Craftfest, a series of panels and workshops on the writing life, techniques, strategies, skills and ideas. People like Steve Berry turn out to be skilled teachers, and Walter Mosley to be a really seriously good thinker.

As always, the benefits were in just being around people with ideas and who are so encouraging. Stars like Child, James and Mosley et. al. see themselves as writers like everyone else, and act accordingly. It was a terrific opportunity to get added energy for and commitment to writing.

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And then there was New York in the spare time: fireworks on 4 July; a great night at Birdland with Sandi and Kirsten listening to Stacey Kent; “Oslo”, a wonderful play at the Kennedy Centre about the 1993 peace accords; an excellent Italian meal at Sam’s Place in midtown; bookshops; diners; the B&H camera shop; and all the rest.

Around that New York gig we built visits to friends. First stop was in Phoenix with great and generous pals Lyn and Chris Griffiths who arranged for me to talk about Le Fanu and Madras to their local community. That was a great night. We also went out to Chase Field to cheer on the Diamondbacks against the San Francisco Giants (because for me the Giants are ahead of the Dodgers in the National League West), but to no avail.

After the ITW dinner at the end of Thrillerfest , Michigan we got up at 3 am to catch a flight out to Traverse City to meet up with Marily and Clint Sampson and to stay at their place overlooking Cathead Bay on Lake Michigan, up from TC. It is a fabulous place and we had a fabulous few days travelling Leelanau County.

The bizarre moment while there was catching up opportunistically with Mike Sinclair, another Kiwi and a friend of my pal Alan Cumming, and who lives these days in Northport near Cathead Bay. The world is weird.

Sandi and I then drove from Traverse City, Michigan to Frankenmuth, a German-settled town, to meet Christine and Richard Stark, another couple of friends met on the Holland America Line ships where I do lectures. That was terrific and they gave me a book by a writer who I now really like, Tony Hillerman.

As I keep saying, I am a “crime and place” person for whom the setting is as important as the stories and the characters. Hillerman writes about the American west, a really atmospheric setting now captured in the Longmire television series starring yet another Australian, Robert Taylor. Another writer in that vein, C.J. “Chuck” Box, was a Thrillerfest featured writer.

Coincidentally, near Frankenmuth is the excellent Birch Run “outlet centre” so we spent several acquisitive hours there before heading off towards Kingston in Ontario, a marvellous town.


Then it was back into America towards Stowe, Vermont and the Trapp Family Lodge where we spent a week to celebrate 35 years of marriage. (Where the hell did that time go?). The Trapps lobbed up in Stowe after they walked out of Austria in that film, you remember? By chance, though, there was another connection for me in the town. Joe Kirkwood was one of the first Australian golfers to go to America. A “choker” who never won a major, he was still a huge star travelling the world with Walter Hagen and playing trick shots. One of his twin sons became a Hollywood actor in the Joe Palooka series, and Joe himself ended up as the first professional at the Stowe Country Club.

Having a beer in the Kirkwood Bar and visiting his grave was moving. Like us, he was a long way from home.

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It was a week of bike riding (wondering when the bears would emerge from the woods), eating at great restaurants (try Harrisons and The Bistro at Ten Acres), finding lovely spots and shops.

One of those shops was Ebenezer, a marvellous independent bookshop in the nearby small town of Johnson. A terrific find – we bought a few books!

After Stowe we headed for Bristol, Connecticut (home of ESPN) to catch up with Bob and Sandra Utterback.

On the way there we made one of those great stops, off the freeway between Hartland and Windsor, Vermont. We needed petrol so stopped at a station where the guy came out to fill up the car for us, a rare experience these days. We needed breakfast so he suggested Frazer’s Place, just along the road. The classic diner in what had started life as a mobile home. Sit at the counter. A huge plate of eggs, sausage, toast. Endless coffee. Lots of chat with the locals. The local cop and a detective come in for breakfast. The real America.


Bob Utterback was my great golfing pal when we all lived in Penang, Malaysia during the 1990s, and he makes the world’s best margarita. These days, he and Sandra spend the summers at an amazing campground complex where the houses all started out as summer camps for religious organisations. Now the houses have all been refurbished and the community is an engaged and fun one drawing people from all over the States and Canada.


Without discussion, Bob got us to two massive antique centres, and I managed to find a piece of the Straits Chinese porcelain that I began collecting while in Penang. (There was more waiting when we got home to Queenstown).

Amidst all this we watched all of the Democratic and Republican conventions on television, and discussed it with our friends and their friends who are all keen to talk, mostly in frustration. Their dilemma is this: how does a country like America end up with a choice between the two most detested Presidential candidates in a very long time, perhaps ever? A decision not to vote is effectively a vote for one or other of them, while a determination to vote is driven by the thought about which of them is the least worst. For perhaps millions of voters, it is a terrible choice.

The USA is not alone in this pain, of course.  The UK voted to leave the European Union just as we were about to leave for the States, then we voted in the mad Australian election called by Malcolm Turnbull and that just about threw him out. Politically, the world is now a strange place, and much of the anger is driven by an alienation from the professional politicians who seem more focused on themselves than on either their constituents or their countries. That is certainly the case in America where, as I write, Trump seems to be alienating everyone, but he has tapped a deep despair with the “establishment” and, whether he wins or loses, has shaken up American politics for ever.

Then it was on to NYC and JFK to round out 2,000 miles of driving and a great experience.

And then we fly back into Queenstown.


Life is OK.

Reading the Writer: Andrea Camilleri

An unexpected bonus of starting to write crime fiction is the opportunity to go back to some favourite authors and not only rediscover the fun but also start to work out what they are doing. That is especially the case where the writers run a long series, and as a ‘crime and place” aficionado one of my absolute favourites is the marvellous Andrea Camilleri.

Camilleri, of course, writes that wonderful lot of books set in Sicily and featuring the irascible Commisario Salvo Montalbano.   The television series based on the books have been shown around the world and made Luca Zingaretti a global star. Perhaps predictably for Italy, Zingaretti’s brother Nicola is currently the President of the Lazio region that includes Rome, is a former member of the European Parliament and a Democratic Party leader. Camilleri himself could not have done that better.


The first point to make is that the books and the series are set very specifically in just one area of Sicily, the southeast corner effectively running from Syracuse around to Porto Empedocle and Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples. Across that area Camilleri captures the marvellous seaside towns and villages, the stark and rugged uplands and hamlets, the variety of people and, of course, the huge range of food. He was one of the first to make food a central part of the story.

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At the heart of this lies the now 90 years old Camilleri’s personal roots in the region. He was born in Porto Empedocle, the tiny harbour down the road from Agrigento and now the doorway to the Scala dei Turchi, the unusual white marl cliffs that have become a recent tourist attraction. The real importance of Porto Empedocle, however, is that Vigata in the books is based on the town with the nearby Agrigento forming Montelusa, the regional centre where Montalbano often has to go for a periodic dressing down. In fact, the small port is now known officially as Porto Empedocle Vigata.

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This regional richness that Camilleri brings to the books is one of the prime ingredients in their success. He is able to paint quick and incisive pen pictures of people and places that make them immediately distinctive. The folk tales, superstitions, local gossip mills, the unusual, the bizarre, the mundane, all reflect what is essentially a small community mindset where histories go back generations and inform current actions. Bars, cafes, restaurants and all the rest provide the stage for this, the avenues for interaction.

In this there is a much stronger than normal connection between books and television series. Yes, the filming takes place in these places, principally in and around the old sections of Ragusa that clings to the sides of some steep hills and provides the opening aerial shots in the original series. Towns like Scicli and Modica provide many of the principal settings for offices and houses, while Montalbano’s own house by the sea is in the small town of Donnalucata.

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But the real connection here lies with the fact that Camilleri did not start writing fiction until he was 53, and the first Montalbano, The Shape of Water appeared 1994 when he was 69. It came out in English first in 2002, starting the craze outside Italy. So what had Camilleri been doing? He was a television script editor and producer by profession, and once we realise that it makes immediate sense of the books. On top of their strong sense of locale, they are informed by a strong cinematic presence. That amplifies the locations, and heightens the characters.

In that sense Montalbano was made for television precise because he was based in a cinematic tradition. So are all the others: Livia the long suffering girlfriend; Ingrid the Swedish femme fatale;”Mimi” Augello the Lothario cop; “Cat” Catarella the bumbling assistant; Fazio the efficient and dogged cop; Nicolo the newsman. These are all characters verging on caricature, but that’s what makes them so memorable, especially when placed so knowingly into the landscape.

It has to be said that all this makes even more sense when seeing it on the ground because, yes, Sandi and I have done the pilgrimage, a couple of times. Staying in the lovely town of Pozzallo was like being on a film set, especially at night when the local populace comes out to promenade and during the day in the markets and shops. Go early to the house at Donnalucata, because soon there will be a legion of tour buses bringing in thousands to see the sites. Driving between the sites is an education in Camilleri Country because you see houses and fields and outlooks that all immediately provide scenes for a murder or some other sort of trickery. And you can also see why Montalbano hates to drive along the narrow lanes and on the high speed freeways.

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But you can always escape to the wonderful La Rusticana in Ragusa, the restaurant that doubles in the films as Montalbano’s local fallback, even if it is a longish distance away from the after lunch stroll he takes along the water.

For a writer, then, Camilleri underlines the significance of setting and its interconnection to action, the significance of difference in character, the fine line between fun and farce, and the fact that drama often proceeds from the simplest slight rather than the most dramatic of affronts.

Camilleri works strongly to a format, about 180 pages over a set number of chapters and that, too, reflects his cinematic background.  Alexandra Sokoloff must love his work given her approach.  It should be said here, too, that Stephen Sartarelli’s translations play a big role in getting all that Sicilian sense through in the English versions. The American poet and translator who now lives in France is an essential part of the success.

We can all learn from this, as well as enjoy the marvelous books and the places and people that they capture.

Biking Birthday

As another birthday approached it seemed like a good idea to mark it in style and do something memorable. The question, of course, was what?

Having now taken to mountain biking that became an immediate option, and finding the memorable or even spectacular was not that hard.

So, a few nights ago Sandi and I and Laura booked into the Hermitage at Mount Cook/Aoraki, but only after an adventurous day on which the car broke down. As usual Sandi fixed all that. Kirsten could not be with us because she had a PhD conference in the UK, but was on the phone.

On the birthday morning it was cold, below freezing – well, it is that time of the year here in the southern hemisphere and especially so in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. At breakfast we got a good look out to Cook, the training ground for Sir Edmund Hilary before he went off to summit Everest. There is now a Hilary Heritage Centre attached to the hotel.

I was soon outside, in the gear and on the bike because I was setting off for the first two sections of the Alps2Ocean bike trail.  New Zealand is fast becoming a world centre for bike touring and much of that is centred in Otago and South Canterbury. The government has just announced another tranche of funding to build and link even more trails in the area. At the heart of it is the famous Rail Trail that runs from Clyde to Middlemarch and, indeed, follows the line set out in the now abandoned rail system that opened up the region.

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As I free wheeled down from the Hermitage and joined the start of the A2O, it seemed that the warm weather gear was not designed for the NZ high country. The thick gloves seemed only to intensify the freeze. But the trail itself was inspiring. The first several kilometres run from near the village down the valley to the grandly named Mt Cook Airport from where sight seers set off all over the area including to the West Coast and into Milford Sound as well as onto and around glaciers and snow slopes. The Mt Cook heli skiing season starts soon – that is for the intrepid.

So why, exactly, am I riding to an airport? Because in order to continue along section 1 of the trail, I have to be choppered (helicoptered) across the Tasman River that runs out of the huge Tasman Glacier and down into Lake Pukaki.  So Sandi and I pitch up at Heliworks, get checked in and meet the marvellous Mark Hayes, today’s pilot.  These people are phenomenal, because as you see from their bios they are deeply involved in rescue work and all sorts of other activities. Mark’s brother Richard has been knighted for his efforts, but all the rest are right up there as well.


Mark gets the bike in the back seat and Sandi and I in the front, and sweeps us off in a turn out across the braided strands of the Tasman River. Mts Cook and Tasman are off to one side, as is Sefton and all the other peaks now just getting the early sun on what is looking like being a stunning day. There are 29 peaks over 3,000 metres in here, so it is spectacular with Cook at 3, 700 metres. And Mark spots a stag that runs off into the tree line. This is the NZ high country at its best, and a reminder of why it is just such an attraction for visitors from all over the world. The hotel was packed, largely with Japanese and Chinese tourists who all seem to have bought Kathmandu or Macpac gear especially for the trip!


We see, too, that the river is now high in water after some heavy rainfall. So heavy, in fact, that as we fly in over the bike trail we note that some areas at the start are under water. Mark puts me down in the nearest available dry spot, we get the bike out, and I crouch low as Mark heads the chopper back to return Sandi to the airport. I am on my own, beside a roaring Tasman River and in the shadow of Cook, with a bike, and I can see already that there are deep pools in some of the closer parts of the trail. The air is magnificent, the sky clear, the sun now up, but I am in the shadow of the mountains still and freezing.

For the first 5 ks there are huge pools of water across and near the trail, some of them up to the hubs on the wheels. By way of compensation there are views to the mountains and the company of hundreds of paradise ducks and Canada geese as well as the usual startled sheep, this is merino country. I have the track and the place to myself. All day I see one other person, two hay trucks, and right near the end of the ride a four wheel drive taking some riders into where I had just been.


The fragility of the landscape and the pioneering nature of the trail kicks in at about 6 ks. The track spears off into the torrent that is the Tasman River. About 300 metres of the track is now, well, river. The bypass is to climb over a fence, skirt along the edge, then rejoin the track which swings off towards the Jollie River car park on the edge of Mt. Cook Station that has just changed hands after being held by the Burnett family for over 150 years. Andrew Burnett, a Highlands Scot, took the land in 1864. His son, Thomas, inherited it but also became a politician between the wars. Thomas Burnett was also responsible for the statue to James McKenzie, of the “McKenzie Country” that stands near Burke’s Pass.

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These stations all have great stories, as now recorded in May Hobbs new book.   The Hayman family, for example, has run Tasman Downs Station since 1914, and the place has become famous most recently as the site for “Lake Town” in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films.

From the Jollie car park the trail goes out onto the Braemar-Mt Cook Station road and begins the long wind along Lake Pukaki which is New Zealand’s seventh largest and among the most spectacular with the water fed from the glacier. Today that water is a greenish blue, making a mockery of the muddy stuff coming down the tributary streams.

Some parts of the gravel road are hugely corrugated so the dual suspension on the bike and the advanced shocks (there is a lot of technology in MTBs!) is welcome but even that is not enough some times. Luckily the scenery is hugely distracting. On the other side of the lake the Ben Ohau range provides snow capped images being reflected in water pools and in secluded bays. Here and there some natural stopping points provide rare opportunities to just sit and admire the view, and to reflect on just what a magic place we have in this part of the world.

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I hit the end of the first stage of the A2O, at the intersection of the Hayman and Braemar roads. The latter is named after the huge Braemar Station, 63,000 acres of it and the road runs across to Lake Tekapo. It is isolated, but dangerous.  New Zealand media these days are full of stories about tourist driving problems and vigilante responses that amount to road rage.

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From that point there is another 18 ks to reach the Lake Pukaki power-generating station, another in the massive chain of hydro electric power plants that transformed this area from the 1950s onwards. The day is now even more magical, especially so for this time of the year on the eve of the ski season. Along the way there is beauty, history, and irony. On a large pond there are hundreds of ducks and geese. Besides the pond there is a sign: No Shooting. The duck shooting season here started on 7 May and is taken so seriously that many Central Otago rugby competitions suspend games for a week or two when the shooting starts. These ducks are smart.

As I ride into the power station and meet the tarseal road, Sandi and Laura arrive to pick me up. Brilliant timing, as always.

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It has been a truly memorable and fantastic day.

I can’t believe I have done it.

Now that was a birthday.

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A New Book

Le Fanu 3, A Straits Settlement, is released on 24 May and will be available in all the usual e-formats like Kindle and iBooks as well as in Print on Demand form via Amazon.  The big news this time, however, is that Kodansha Europe is distributing the book in the UK where it will be available in bookshops.

On this adventure, Le Fanu is sent from Madras across the Bay of Bengal to investigate the case of a missing Indian Civil Service officer that somehow ties into another case. Really, though, it is an excuse to get Le Fanu “out of town”. He is frustrated at being Acting Inspector-General of Police, unhappy in his personal life, faces the prospect of his few influential supporters moving on in their careers, and the grim possibility that his bete noire boss might just return. So Le Fanu goes off to the Straits Settlements and, as usual, things become complicated, not least because he meets an intriguing Straits Chinese woman.

Writing this book allowed me to connect one of my favourite places with another. Le Fanu appeared because of my fascination for Madras now Chennai, a fascination that began a long time ago when I went there to research my PhD and that has continued in the years since.Madras University

I first encountered Penang way back then when I was on my way to India for the first time.

It was the quintessential Asian “place”, well named as “The Pearl of the Orient” and, a year later, I spent a month writing on the beach at Batu Ferringhi. There was just one hotel there, where I stayed, but the new ones were on the way and now, of course, it is hard to find the beach because of the buildings. Then, years later, along with Sandi, Kirsten and Laura I got to live there for three years working on a higher education project.Penang Chinatown

It remains one of my very favourite places and it sparked one of my great obsessions, collecting Straits Chinese porcelain.   (Here is a recent purchase). Straits Chinese kamcheng

My porcelain preoccupation gets a run in A Straits Settlement, so look out for that.

As usual, though, the new book seems “so long ago” even though it was finished just a few short months ago. I am already onto the next one, have two other non-fiction works (including a true crime) well advanced and a couple of film and television scripts in the works all along with trying to keep up my reading, taking photographs, having a life and finding time to fit in my new mania for mountain bike riding. Well, what else was I going to do in Queenstown, New Zealand?

The appearance of a new book, however, is always cause for pause. The most immediate reason is the fear that no-one will like the new book. That never goes away and I doubt there is an author going around who does not suffer from the anxiety. Then, as the industrial part of the process (editing, production, distribution, promotion, social media, selling) kicks in to overtake the creative (the mere writing of the book), for me at least there raises the question of why I am doing this.

Why write?

Just about everyone gets asked that at some point or other and usually way more than once. Perhaps almost as many times as the one where people discover you are a writer (of sorts) and say “Oh, I’m thinking of writing a book!”

Part of the answer to the question, of course, lies right there. There is an innate part of us that has a desire to be a story teller. If you are or were lucky enough, it starts growing up having stories read to you before you have the ability to read. I think that is where I first encountered Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson. Once you can read, stories carry you off to other places. But stories are also part of the common community currency. For a long time the ABC in Australia carried a weekend broadcast of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion”, the stories from the wonderfully named if fictional Lake Wobegon in Minnesota  that breathed life into everyday characters. It was mandatory listening for us.  (One highlight of recent years for Sandi and me was hearing Keillor live in London, a marvellous performance.)

Maori culture in New Zealand has a great tradition of storytelling and oratory as do many others, of course. Somewhere in among the mountain of things I’ve collected over the years is a “talking stick” produced by a craftsman from the Kwakiutl First nation in Canada. In gatherings, the talking stick was used to ensure as many voices as possible were heard. Only the person holding the stick could speak at that time, and the stick was passed around to ensure inclusivity.

Kwakiutl taling stick

There were many, many times in the interminable round of university meetings when I wished that we used the talking stick!

The point, then, is that story telling is a part of us, and the writer goes one step or several beyond that to extend the process. That is why once one book is done we put aside the industrial drudgery and the fear of rejection, the fear of finding publishers and the approval of reviewers and all the rest to do yet another one.

It is because there are a lot more stories to be told.

Believable Creativity

Netflix and all those other outlets encourage binge-watching of television series, we know. The plus is that you can track momentum and development, the negative is that there is no time left for writing. Among other things, though, this watching raises questions about all the rules of writing to be found in all those manuals about writing fiction and writing for TV and film. Rules are there to be followed or broken as the creative process desires, of course, but watching series like this highlights both good and bad.

River is one of those English programs that shows creativity at its best.  Stellan Skarsgard plays a detective whose “hearing voices” condition is aggravated by the shooting of his partner played by Nicola Walker, who these days is in just about everything. That leads to some strange behaviours on his part as he unravels her complex life that was ended courtesy of an unlikely source.

The show is a tightly run six part affair, well paced, neatly written, well cast, off beat but strangely believable. It was written by Abi Morgan whose earlier work includes The Hour, another neat series set in a British television newsroom in the 50s, and whose latest showing is the film, Suffragette that has gained some mixed reviews.

There is a chemistry that makes things like River work, but it does start with the writing and Morgan exercised a tight rein over it, with great results. That allows a great cast and a great production team full scope to produce a winner.

The Fall is something else altogether.  It stars Gillian Anderson of X Files fame, and works to her English-American background, probably in order to give the series a more international profile. It has so far gone through two seasons with a third and final due mid-2016.

Anderson plays an English senior detective brought into Northern Ireland to deal with a murder case where the victim was the estranged wife of the “connected” son of a local “player”. Anderson’s character soon determines that this is part of a serial killing spree, and the chase is on. Along the way there are interpersonal issues that have her selecting members of her team (of both varieties) for casual sex; excursions into domestic violence; the inevitable sectarian and political struggles; crooked cops and corrupt politicians; and the suppressed nature of Belfast life.

It is slow in an attempt to be atmospheric, and Anderson’s ice cold, efficient character frequently strays into melodrama, it must be said – the strong jaw sometimes looks more like lock jaw. Some of the best moments in the series, it must be said, come from Stuart Graham who plays a senior detective brought into “shadow” if not watch Anderson.

The series was written by Allan Cubitt who has a pedigree going back to Prime Suspect, and there is an obvious attempt here to play off long running shows like The Killing and its knock-offs like The Bridge. It has won awards, including for writing, but for me it is way too slow and raises serious issues of credibility. Anderson stalks around abandoned buildings and the countryside in high heels and designer clothes, for example, and there are big moments of doubt as to whether things would really have happened, like police officers going into dangerous sites unaccompanied.

That immediately raises the question of why something so unlikely as River works and, for me, The Fall does not. It goes to believability, I think, and that is a combination of writing and acting with a clear interaction between the two. Skarsgard and Walker make the unlikely seem possible, Anderson and Jamie Dornan do not.

Much the same principle applies to crime writing, in all likelihood, and might explain why a few books I have started reading lately have been problematic. Part of it is repetition – many UK books now reference child abuse and illegal immigration automatically. That is part of the “crime as social commentary” move that is in general a good thing, but it places a premium on the writer’s skill. Ian Rankin makes it work in his latest, some others do not.

That was why I read Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings that won the recent Booker Prize. At heart it is a crime novel, based in the chaos of Kingston, Jamaica from the 1960s to the 1980s when economic collapse, political violence and the rising drug trade all intersected to make suburban slums like Trench Town among the worst in the world.

James’ writes the book in several “voices”, and cuts between the patois of the slums and the white American world and a lot in between. It is a “literary” rather than a “crime” novel per se, though, and at times I wish there had been a tougher edit. That said, it is a brilliant piece of writing and for me, having spent a little time in Kingston in the 80s (and it remains one of the scariest places I have been), it is believable.

That is a good reminder as I return to two non-fiction books I am trying to complete, and think about writing the fourth in the Le Fanu crime fiction series.

Alert: A Straits Settlement is Le Fanu number 3 and will be released May 19th, including to bookshops in the UK.

Much of this reflection has been the result of the latest round of lecturing on the high seas, this time for a month aboard the ms Rotterdam of the Holland America Line, sailing from Piraeus in Greece through to Singapore. Once again, that demonstrated that there is a lot of unbelievability in the actual world.

One highlight for me, for example, was visiting the Falcon Hospital in Abu Dhabi. These birds are magnificent, and pampered. Many spend the malting season in the hospital, at considerable cost. Most have passports so that they can travel with their owners during the hunting season, and many travel alongside their owners on commercial airline flights. That simply underlines the centrality of falconry in the local culture, and seems scarcely believable to the outside world.


That was matched by the opulence of the new mosque in Abu Dhabi. It cost north of $US1.5 billion but, to me, lacks both a soul and the essential humility of Islam. Then there is Dubai and Dubai Mall with its ice rink that featured ice hockey while we were there, along with the massive aquarium that hosts sharks and rays and much more.

It just goes to show: there is much in the world already that we struggle to “believe”, and that should make us think much more when writing a creative or imaginary one.