Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

30 September 2009

Tuscany: Castiglione Revisited

Many years of peace make peaceful gardens

Since 1945 when the last German invasion of Italy ended, the people of Castiglione di Garfagnana have lived at peace. They don’t even have to worry much about internal strife because government goes on despite the annual changes of political masters in Rome, and it’s only down south that the mafia blows up judges. Over fifty years without fear. Now, instead of casting anxious eyes over the landscape they can look inwards at the bimbo shows on television and enjoy the comfort of washing machines, fridges, pop-up toasters, stereos, espresso machines, cell phones and three-wheeled Piaggios… their ancestors would have thought them the trappings of the devil.

In a tranquil, deserted but well tended little public garden there’s a memorial to men and women killed in the war. Italian soldiers don’t enjoy the best of reputations, appearing too fond of wine, women and song. The myths of Italian soldiery - they swapped sides readily; they strutted after Mussolini’s conquests in Ethiopia; they wore sumptuous uniforms and reeked of garlic and toiletries; they harboured cravens who hunted with the hounds and ran with the hares - overshadow the courage of resistance workers who fought Nazis in the hills above their native villages knowing that their families were being raped and singled out to be shot in reprisals while they themselves were in constant danger of capture and summary execution. It must have been hard. It is not forgotten: these shrines and memorial gardens exist all over northern Italy.

San Michele, Castiglione

Once my eyes adjust to shadow inside the Porta Principale I can make out a battered painted statue of Our Lady. Holding Jesus, she’s wearing a crown and is sumptuously dressed. Interesting how the Catholic church has rococo-ized the holy family; there’s something meretricious in the way the church has abandoned the simple country girl who gave birth in a stable.

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy

Tuscany: Castiglione di Garfagnana

From Castelnuovo di Garfagnana a highway strikes directly north to climb the Apennines, crossing from Tuscany into Emilia Romagna to Modena, where that delicious balsamic vinegar comes from. From the map it’s obvious that in the old days, when life was just one long series of punch-ups between neighbouring tribes, it provided access to coveted territories. It doesn’t take much to imagine the fear and misery that the peasants would have suffered as the ebb and flow of piddling but murderous conflict regularly wrecked their lives. Their crops would have been raided after harvest (bastards who fought mediaeval wars always waited until the harvest was in), their goats and cattle slaughtered to feed mercenary task forces and their daughters - and a few sons no doubt - raped in the name of some scrofulous duke or count bent on adding his coloured pins to the European map.

The fortified town of Castiglione di Garfagnana lies a few kilometres north of Castelnuovo high on the Modena road which climbs steeply in linen-folds to the walls of the town. It would have been difficult to assail from the south, there’s no cover, attackers would be in view over a long distance and the garrison would have had ample time to brew up vats of boiling oil ready to be poured through the macchicolations - the gaps below the battlements specially built for that purpose. The 12th century pentagon of curtain walls which surrounds the town is remarkably intact. Its longest stretch includes the main gate, the Porta Principale, whose stained tower has a white clock face with delightfully naive Arabic numerals painted on it; they look as if they’ve been lettered by amateurs but fit very nicely into the slender tower which has a strange, pyramidal metal canopy, painted a rusty pink; something from Disneyland or towered Camelot.
In the 15th century Castiglione was capital town of the Garfagnana but none of the meagre histories I’ve checked gives it an origin more precise than as a settlement of the ‘Liguri-Apuan’ folk who, in time, were rolled over by the Romans. The first dated historical documents mention the founding of the church and monastery of San Pietro in 723 AD by Longobard brothers Aurimand and Gudifrid. The Lombards were Germans from over the alps, a bunch of prototypical lager louts who spread themselves around northern Italy putting the boot into what was left of the Roman Empire. They must have started the love affair Italians have with Germans that still goes on to this day…

Aurimund and Gudifrid couldn’t have been that bad because the church of San Pietro is still standing, tucked hard up against - and looking in better shape than - the later fortified wall. After the Lombards (Longobards = ‘long beards’: at least they weren’t skinheads) the town was kicked around by all and sundry - Pisans, Florentines and the Lucchese from down the valley who flattened the place in 1227 and so impressed the townsfolk that it became a devoted outpost of Lucca until, in the 19th century, it passed to the Duchy of Modena.

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy


28 September 2009

What’s For Breakfast?

Somewhere high above the Java Sea the Malaysian air hostess brought my breakfast tray of exotically ornamented china, napkin-shrouded cutlery and a lonely bowl of corn flakes. She promised more to come: omelettes, steak, a fish dish of some sort; coffee, tea, fruit juice. But I was desperately hungry, my body clock all over the place, and calculating to when we’d left Rome hours and hours before I’d have said it was dinner time; but the airline had different ideas.

I eyed the corn flakes. A dry heap. No milk in sight anywhere. I had to have something, so I started to eat them as you’d eat nachos or pre-cocktail nibbles and discovered that they were extremely good that way. In fact, while admitting that I haven’t eaten corn flakes for years, I have to say that I’ve never enjoyed them quite so much. I finished the bowl.

At which point - wouldn’t you know it? The milk arrived.

Funny things corn flakes. They’ve been around for well over a century. If you’d tried to buy a packet of Kelloggs or Sanitarium before 1898 you’d have been out of luck. Before then the closest you could have got would have been some gravelly corn husk things called ‘hominy grits’. Cowboys used to eat them in all the cowboy books that I read when I was a boy…
‘Wild George Dubya kicked the dust over his camp fire, packed up his bed roll and finished the last of his hot, black coffee. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as his tongue sought to dislodge a hominy grit from the cheap upper dentures that low down tooth-puller in Abilene had sold him. He looked at the angry sun rising like a curse out of the prairie. Today was the day when he’d catch up with the skunk who shot his pa…’
The only way you could make hominy grits edible was by boiling them until they were soft enough not to smash your teeth; but by some miracle, in 1894, the Kellogg brothers, Dr John and Will, working together at the Seventh Day Adventists’ Sanitarium at Battle Creek, Michigan, discovered that by squeezing softened wheat and corn kernels through rollers and then baking the resulting flakes they became wholly edible. Four more years of experiment led to the birth of both Sanitarium and Kelloggs’ Corn Flakes and breakfast has never been the same since.

They do say that practically everybody eats either wheat biscuits or corn flakes for brekky these days although I, personally, prefer toasted home-made bread and home made marmalade. (Recipes available at donovan@ihug.co.nz).

Mind you, I wasn’t always that sensible; before cholesterol frescoed the insides of the ancestral arteries I was a great one for the only meal the poms have ever been renowned for, the ‘full English breakfast’. The big London hotels still do them, so do landladies in bed-and-breakfasts around British seaside resorts, and you can get a particularly excellent one on the cross channel ferry that plies between Dover and Calais:- two fried eggs, their skirts ever so slightly singed and their yolks marbled by an assiduous chef who’s flicked sizzling bacon fat over them as they’ve cooked. They lie on fried bread that’s never soggy and are accompanied by rashers of streaky bacon also done to a subtle crisp. The odd beef sausage is by no means out of place and a little colour and piquancy is added by a modestly blushing tomato or two. Oh, the days of my youth!

A piece of research I read some years ago showed that New Zealanders were cereal eaters five days a week but were into the bacon and eggs at weekends but I somehow doubt if that’s still the case. As we’ve become more health conscious we’ve abandoned the glory of the formidable breakfast, which, if you believe all you read, was even more glorious in Edwardian times…
‘Algie appeared in the morning room looking the worse for wear after a losing night at the card tables. Gamely attempting a flippant manner, he lifted the lids off the silver dishes one by one: devilled kidneys, smoked haddock, grouse and partridge (suitably strong and well-hung) larks tongues and venison paté with sauté potatoes… “God I’m bored!” he cried. “Any one for tennis?”.’
The strange thing about those Edwardians is that so many of them lived to ripe old ages. I suppose they suffered from gout; and they probably had a fair measure of flatulence. But they probably compensated by keeping fit tramping the moors, shooting their beaters or drowning their gillies, and if they went travelling at all it was by ship with a chance to walk the promenade deck and play quoits, which you can’t do on a Boeing flying from Rome to Auckland via Kuala Lumpur. Which is why it’s probably a good idea to flag away the omelettes and stick to the dry corn flakes.

And that’s where I came in.


Tuscany: Peasant Women, Café Men

Where do the solitary old women come from who, dressed in black, walk the back roads of Tuscany? It seems that whenever one drives in the country, at some point on the journey, at some time in the day, there will be one around the next bend, sometimes miles from any visible habitation.

Old fashioned women. Peasant women. 

Are they widows? Or are their men those who sit at the tables outside Barga’s Bar Onesti or similar village bars and cafés, reading tabloid newspapers, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and covertly appraising the luscious young raggazzi who toss their heads knowingly as they pass on the street?

Café men and walking matrons: I imagine them at home, couples living lives of grunted communication, each to their duties, love and lust spent, children grown and gone. They part company after breakfast, she to walk, he to male bonding at the café, both to return at day’s end to more grunts and a matrimoniale whose springs stopped groaning for joy years ago.

Some men retire early in Italy. I remember a young-looking chap whom we met, with his attractive wife, at the restaurant ‘La Mocchia’ who told us that he was retired from his job as a salesman at the age of fifty. He explained that once you’ve done thirty-five years of work you may retire no matter how old you are and collect a state pension. If that’s correct it’s a way of solving youth unemployment but what does it do to the psyche of the pensioner? Most people who retire don’t know what to do with their earned leisure; they and their minds wither.

But then again, early retirement may explain the intensively worked terraced smallholdings on the hills around the Garfagnana. I doubt that, ordinarily, they’d be payable propositions but if they serve to keep the retiree occupied, to supplement income, and to put home-grown food and wine on the table they make good sense. I think the master of Chiesetta No. 1, may have fallen into that category: he worked his slopes assiduously, especially those overlooking the pool of No. 2 around which the Inglesi women laid in the sun…

One sees some still-together pairs travelling side-by-side, sitting bolt upright in the confined cabs of Piaggios, those narrow three-wheelers low-geared enough to negotiate any track, any gradient. They’re used for everything, to carry goats, sheep, groceries, kids, tools, machinery - I’ve been held up behind one whose tray was so full of hay that it looked in imminent danger of overturning on the slightest bend but, like a mobile Leaning Tower of Pisa, made it all the way!

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’


27 September 2009

Barga: The Money Changer

We go into Barga to change some travellers cheques. Just off the square, the Banca Toscana is near the Tamol petrol station. (Angela the vivacious pump operator, small, dark eyed, her face deeply tanned by the Tuscan sun, always gives me a big smile even when I’m not buying petrol. Benzina in Italy is expensive but I find it easier to pay for when purchased from Angela.) 

But to the Banca Toscana… to gain access one presses a button outside a narrow, curved glass kiosk the outer door of which slides open to admit one only, then shuts. Once inside this vertical coffin one presses another button to open a similar internal door. The operation takes about a minute. In other words if there are five customers waiting it’ll take the last one at least five minutes to get in. Inside there are queues of people who stand in silence or talk in low whispers and wait, with infinite patience, for the mills of the banca to grind; exceedingly slowly.

I am ushered to one of the queues where I wait and wait until I am confronted by a female automaton who checks my passport while I sign enough TCs to get me 500 000 lire - about $NZ500.00 - of ready cash to see us through the last few days in Italy. La bella signorina sends me to the back of another queue where, at length, I come face to face with a spotty youth with a fag in his mouth. He grunts smoke at me past half-closed eyes, checks my passport again, takes my TCs, counts them then enters something into a calculator which spews a faint print-out which he gives me with a flourish. I scrutinize it and discover that I’m about to receive 950 000 lire!

Hitherto our language has been Italian; well, mine was Italian, his could have been anything. But when I look at the print-out and say aloud to myself, ‘That looks like a jolly good rate of exchange’ he stands, leans forward and snatches it from my hand.

‘Umf umf wumf umf’ he says, his cigarette flapping up and down in his lips.

Mi scusi?’ I ask.

He takes the cigarette out of his mouth and admits, reluctantly while reddening, ‘I made a mistake.’

‘Indeed? You surprise me.’ But I think my sarcasm was lost on him.

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’


Eyes Wrong

We were watching a man being interviewed on television the other night and I said to Patricia: ‘I don’t like the look of that man, his eyes are too close together.’

To which she replied: ‘I agree - especially the one on the right.’




25 September 2009

ANZAC Memories

In 2005 I compiled a small collection of archived photographs from various sources that depicted aspects of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in World War One. It was published by New Holland Publishers in 2005, titled ‘ANZAC Memories’. 

As with Siegfried Sassoon, I’ve always felt the irony of that war; the waste, the stupidity, the overwhelming sadness. Consequently I sought quotations about the war that would be thought-provoking when applied to images that are especially poignant when we remember the disproportionate sacrifices that were made by both Australia and New Zealand at theatres and battles like Gallipoli and Passchendaele.

Perhaps the most ironic of them was the photograph and its caption below; rugby union football features largely in the sporting cultures of both countries. To have stopped the whole pointless calamity of the so-called ‘Great War’ it would only have needed a few just minded men to sit down and talk.

‘The referee has the power to declare no side at any time, if the referee believes that play should not go on because it would be dangerous.’
From The Laws of Rugby Union Football

The photograph shows New Zealand troops playing an improvised rugby match on the western front in France.
With acknowledgements to New Holland Publishers Ltd and Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand


A Children’s Ballad


Egbert was a bantam
But what he lacked in height
He made up for with feathers
Hundreds of ‘em, very bright.

On his head he wore a comb
As red as red can be.
The other end his rooster’s tail
Waved proud and gorgeously.

He liked to strut around the farm
Kicking up a riot
With other chickens twice his size
Who only wanted quiet.

His favourite occupation
Was getting up at dawn
And waking up the farmer’s wife,
Crowing like a horn.

With ‘Cock-a-doodle-doodle-do!
Wake up Mrs Jones!
Yo-ho. Nicky-nocky-noo!
Get up you lazy bones!’

One day, Farmer Jones awoke
Pained by Egbert’s racket
He slipped into his big gumboots
And big, thick woolly jacket.

‘You’re fired’ he cried,
‘Your awful squawk is like a fire alarm!’
He grabbed poor Egbert by the neck
And threw him off the farm.

As Egbert lay in mute surprise
Puzzled by his plight.
His world lit up, a golden glow
Bathed him in its light.

And from this wondrous shimmering mist
Materialized a spectre
A giant white rooster wearing jewels
And carrying a sceptre.

Egbert with his punctured pride
Was greatly overawed.
‘Who d’you think you are?’ he asked
‘Dressed up like a lord!

‘I’m your Fairy Chickfather,
I’ve come to help you out.
It’s in my power to grant one wish
But let there be no doubt

‘There’s only one and once you’ve made
Your choice of what to do
You’re stuck with it for ever more
Think carefully, Godchick, do.’

Poor Egbert, thrown into a tizz
His mind was full of questions
‘I just can’t think of anything
Please give me some suggestions.’

Chickfather said, ‘Invisible
‘Through time and space we’ll fly
To find out what exciting things
Your dreams could satisfy.’

He waved his sceptre round his head
And puffed his mighty chest
They took off in a shower of sparks
Young Egbert was impressed

They landed in a fire station
As jangling bells were pealing
The firemen slid down shiny poles
From holes up in the ceiling.

Dressed up in blue uniforms
With buttons all a-gleam
And big brass helmets on their heads
They looked a gallant team.

The siren wailed, the engine roared,
They raced all through the town
To help a cat stuck up a tree
They got the moggie down.

‘Well, what do you think?’ Chickfather asked
Said Egbert, ‘Thanks but no;
I don’t like cats or bells or speed -
Let’s have another go.’

* * *
A royal banquet next appeared
With courtiers grandly dressed;
Medals, ribbons, diamonds, pearls
Graced many a noble chest.

Candelabra, golden plate
And finest crystal glasses
Stretched as far as eyes could see.
God bless the upper classes!

Suddenly there fell a hush
As in came all the waiters
Dressed in velvet trimmed with gilt,
Silk shoes and jewelled gaiters

They bore aloft on silver trays . . .
‘Oh’ Egbert cried out, ‘Look!
‘That’s chicken roast they’re serving there
I’ll never be a cook!’

* * *
An ocean gale screams from the pole
And blows the tops off waves;
The rolling, pitching fishing boat
The polar weather braves.

Egbert and his Chickfather
Are standing with the crew
Dragging in the fishing nets.
They’re soaking through and through.

Poor Egbert looks distinctly green,
His feathers wet and droopy,
‘If you think I’d enjoy this life
You must think I’m loopy -

‘It’s not so much the ups and downs,
Or risking life and limb;
What really terrifies me is
I’ve never learned to swim!’

* * *
‘Egbert, I think you don’t like noise,
You’re peacable at heart,
Disliking things adventurous:
Let’s try the world of art.’

And suddenly we see our bantam
Dressed up in a smock
And beret; with a great big brush,
And palette chock-a-block

With brilliant colours, red and blue,
Orange, green and yellow,
And canvas, blank, what might he paint,
This most artistic fellow?

He tried to paint a motor car
Which came out like a boat.
And then he made a bowl of flowers
Look like a spotted goat.

Trees looked like bees and bees like birds
And birds like cows with paws.
So Egbert threw a tantrum
And stamped his bantam claws.

‘I don’t like cats or fire engines.
I’ll never be a sailor.
I cannot draw or paint or cook;
I’m nothing but a failure!’

* * *
‘There, there’ said Chickdad.
‘Calm yourself. We’ll have just one more try.
I’ve had a rather good idea.
Let’s do a spin and fly . . .’

* * *
The lights go dim, the audience stills,
The red plush curtain rises.
A wondrous scenery meets the eye;
A backdrop of surprises.

The orchestra like penguins dressed,
Brass, woodwinds, violins,
Accompany an opera queen,
(All chest and wobbly chins).

On struts the king in flowing robes
First, soft diminuendo,
Then, with his queen, their voices pure,
Soar up through a crescendo.

And as they hold their ringing song,
Descending from on high,
A giant golden cockerel comes.
(The audience gives a sigh).

The music and the singing stop.
The golden cockerel’s beak
Opens wide and from inside
There comes . . . an awful SQUEEEAK!

The king and queen and chorus cry,
‘Oh help, what shall we do?’
When suddenly from afar they hear,

Wake up Mrs Jones!
Yo-ho. Nicky-nocky-noo!
Get up you lazy bones!’

It’s Egbert to the rescue;
Alone he’s saved the show!
The audience rises to its feet
They cry ‘Bravissimo!’

And as they clap and stamp their feet
They crane their necks to see
Who owns the virtuoso voice.
What, where, who can it be?

Chickfather said ‘Egbert, my boy
It’s time for me to go.
You’ve had your wish.
Good luck to you. I’m off - prestissimo!’

And as he left in clouds of gold,
On stage Egbert appeared,
His feathers bright, his comb aglow;
Oh how the audience cheered.

The chorus gathered all around
To hoist him up on high.
He was an overnight success
And quickly by and by

He sang with all the greatest stars,
Became a household name.
But deep inside a humble bird
He was not spoiled by fame.

When in the Sydney Opera House
Or at Milan’s La Scala,
Covent Garden, New York Met.
Or any opera gala,

Listen very carefully
If Egbert’s in the cast;

Then you, I’m sure, will plainly hear
Above the trumpet’s blast

The Bantam of the Opera sing
In ringing, joyous tones
Thankyou Farmer Jones!

The moral of this story is
That when you feel depressed,
Nothing goes on getting worse
Things turn out for the best.



24 September 2009

Bagni di Lucca: A Place of Torture

No. 2 Via Della Chiesa is an unusual four-storeyed triangular building in Bagni di Lucca. The façade at the sharpest point of its triangle is comprised of three wedding cake tiers of pompous Corinthian columns topped by an open, eagle’s nest balcony adorned with plant pots of scarlet and pink geraniums. Once washed a mustard orange-yellow it’s now peeling with neglect and is filthy from diesel fumes. Two grimy marble plaques are inset into its walls. The first, installed in September 1974, commemorates the imprisonment and torture here of patriots by ‘Nazi Fascists’ during the second world war. One comes up short imagining the screams that would once have emanated from the shuttered basement windows…

Pause for reflection

I am intrigued by the words ‘Nazi Fascists’. European union demands that old enmities be set aside and that those who were once oppressed by Germany should avoid direct criticism of the German people. So, on war memorials, ‘Nazi’ is the politically correct word that describes the oppressors, neatly avoiding giving offence while leaving older Germans to decide whether or not any blame attaches to them for past atrocities. I first came across this form of tombstone diplomacy at Echternach, a small border town in Luxembourg, separated from Germany by a narrow river. German tanks had rolled across Echternach’s mediaeval stone bridge to invade Luxembourg early in the war and the town’s subsequent liberation ‘from the Nazi invaders’ by American forces in 1945 is recorded on a memorial plaque in the town. Clearly the Italians as well as the Luxembourgeois have taken the polite route when it comes to memorial texts.

… the second tablet records that in this building lived ‘Ouida’, Louise de la Ramée, ‘scrittrice Inglesi amante del’ Italia, amica degli animali qui dimoro negli anni 1904-1905’ which, I think, means that she was an English writer, lover of Italy and friend to animals.

Marie Louise de la Ramée was known as ‘Ouida’ because that was how she pronounced ‘Louise’ when she was a child. She wrote forty-five novels and was sixty-six when she died in 1908. I wonder what life was like here for those English litterati some of whom finished up in the neglected English cemetery up the road? I think the Italians took them to their hearts - otherwise why would they record ‘Ouida’s’ stay in their town with as much prominence as the torture of patriots by the ‘Nazi Fascists’?

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’


23 September 2009

At Bagni di Lucca

Bagni di Lucca in Tuscany’s middle Serchio valley, moulded by the confining, forested hills either side of the Lima River is a town of gracious villas, spas, hotels and slab sided houses three or four storeys high whose walls plunge like pastel cliffs to the stony river bed.

‘The Baths of Lucca’ where mineral-rich hot springs well out of the rock, have been used for therapy and luxury since Roman times. Emperor Frederick I praised the town in 1245, I guess he wallowed in one of the pools for the gout or poxy pustules that had been wished upon him by Pope Gregory IX to go with his excommunication. He must have been a bit of a lad, Fred, because he not only became Emperor of the Germans at age two, and King of Sicily at three, he also managed, in his fifty-six years (during which he earned the title ‘Stupor Mundi’ - Wonder of the World) to get himself crowned King of Jerusalem and throw all Italy into turmoil when he made war on a couple of popes. He lost, and his family, the Hohenstaufens, went into an irretrievable decline.

When Fred took the waters in the thirteenth century the road up the Serchio Valley was probably just a mule track so I guess the hot pools were mostly used by the locals; but Napoleon’s sister, who also liked a wallow, had a decent road made from Lucca in 1805 and started the town’s tourist boom.

In a shaft of sunlight that illuminates the soup plate leaves of the plane trees we see four young nuns walking briskly, in step, two by two, jolly, waving their arms in conversation like something out of ‘The Sound of Music’. You don’t see nuns much these days, let alone young ones. They look beautiful; pink, virginal faces trapped in black and white frames. I wish I could stop the car and photograph them - but I’d never ask, I’d make a terrible paparrazzo!

There’s always a key shot to illustrate an article; as Bagni di Lucca is a river town it’s a view upstream from the main traffic bridge, Ponte di Castruccio. Nearby there’s a café, where Pat says she’ll be happy to sit under a sun umbrella and drink cappuccino while I go over to the bridge and set up the camera and tripod. Just as I frame the picture the sun shuts off so I have to wait. I hear a warbly whistling and looking below and to one side I see on the balcony of one of the houses an ugly looking fellow with a wall eye and tattoos trying to attract my attention. Behind him an old, black-clad woman sits in a rocking chair, her eyes closed like a basking cat. Whistler’s mother.

He shouts to me but I can’t hear him for the noise of traffic over the bridge. I shout back ‘No parlo bene, Italiano. Sono da la Nuova Zelande’ but he goes on chattering away, mostly inaudibly, and making gestures, then he asks me if I’m German.

‘No. No No. Nuova Zelande.’
‘Nuova Zelande. New Zealand!’
‘Si, Australiano.’ That’ll do, thank God for Sydney Harbour Bridge.

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’


20 September 2009

Goats On the Mule Road to Renaio

A distant clanking noise. A herd of goats is coming up the mule road behind Chiesetta. I dash for my camera and as I emerge from the green gate there they are, a foraging platoon coming over a rise in the path, hesitantly trotting forward, stopping to eat foliage, then darting forward again. The leader, an old billy with a curling beard is condemned to live his life with the clank of that black bell below his throat.

The goat herd in black baggy trousers held by a thick leather belt with an enormous brass buckle emerges through the back-lit silvery dust raised from days of aridity. He wears a striped, collarless shirt and his face is weather worn with black-tufted, rouge-pink cheeks. I hold my camera up and call out to him above the goats.


He points at the camera and himself ‘Me?’.

‘Si, si, okay?’ I ask again.

His face breaks into a gappy grin as he nods his permission. I photograph him and his goats as they approach to fill the frame, then surround me, then move beyond me towards Renaio and summer grazing on the Appenine slopes. I’ve shot 36 exposures; delighted. Now that’s something you’d never see in New Zealand.

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’


A Day in the Death of T.E.Lawrence

It was all a bit breathless but I had to visit three T.E.Lawrence destinations before leaving Dorset and England for New Zealand. Lawrence has fascinated me since I was a small boy and read bits of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the reference library in Norbury. Latterly I amassed a large collection of Lawrenciana including some quite valuable Golden Cockerel editions and a copy of Seven Pillars with four of the 1925 subscriber’s edition colour plates in it. 

Over many years I developed a bit of a love-hate relationship with T.E. because although he was undoubtedly heroic, he was also a liar and a bit of a prat!

With time running out fast I wanted to see: 1. Cloud’s Hill, 2. T.E’s gravestone, 3. His effigy.

Cloud’s Hill, Lawrence’s cottage that he bought in 1925 having rented it from 1923 when he was grudgingly serving in the Tank Regiment at Bovington is delightful, peaceful, well preserved and redolent of the man and his solitary, simple milieu. We were the only visitors that day. I picked up a flint from the garden and some fresh oak leaves and brought them back to New Zealand as non-politically-correct keepsakes.

The grave in nearby Moreton churchyard is impressively ordinary and T.E. now finds himself in more company than he would have liked in life. Its headstone bears an inscription that he wouldn’t have cared for (dictated by his mother) and the motto of Oxford University which he would. There were floral tributes some fresh, some wilting.

A few miles east is Wareham where in St. Martin’s church is a reclining sandstone effigy of T.E.L as Lawrence of Arabia carved by Eric Kennington, the illustrator of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It’s very, very good. Apparently the vicar of Moreton church wouldn’t have the effigy because he didn’t want his church over-run by tourists but St. Martins needed funds for restoration so gladly allowed Lawrence’s effigy an alcove to itself. I had it to myself for a brief, silent moment.

Those three pilgrimages completed we departed with indecent haste but with actual been-there memories of Lawrence’s last days.

A strange man. An enigma. Born 1888 died 1935. Still alive in myth and mystery.


19 September 2009

The Author’s Crisis

When an author’s manuscript is rejected by a publisher it is natural for the author to believe that the book was not good enough. That can induce failure of confidence leading to complete de-motivation. When I submitted the MS of my crime novel The Wastings to Random House I received this reply:

…It is clever and well written but it doesn’t quite engage the reader…this manuscript is not for us…Harriet Allen. Managing Editor’

Another publisher took up The Wastings and it was subsequently published. A short time later I received a letter from Colin Dexter, author of the Inspector Morse stories:

‘Dear Don,
A very brief line to say how much (yes!) I enjoyed and admired
The Wastings. So did my wife. So did my daughter.
A lovely idea & a beautifully written work. You’ve made a splendid debut in crime fiction. More please! Good luck with your opus secundum.
Colin Dexter’

I much prefer Colin Dexter’s opinion to Harriet Allen’s!

My message to all rejected authors is: Believe in yourself. Don’t lose heart. Even professional editors can get it wrong. Mark Twain and J.K.Rowling, no strangers to rejection, could attest to that fact.

The Wastings is now available as an e-book from Amazon.com at $US 9.99.

18 September 2009

Second Bite: A Crime Novel

After my first novel The Wastings was published I received this letter from ‘Inspector Morse’ author Colin Dexter:
456 Banbury Road, Oxford
Dear Don,
A very brief line to say how much (yes!) I enjoyed and admired The Wastings. So did my wife. So did my daughter.
A lovely idea and beautifully written work. You’ve made a splendid debut in crime fiction. More please!
Good luck with your opus secundum.
Colin Dexter’

I subsequently published my second work of fiction, my ‘opus secundum’, which, coincidentally, is titled Second Bite. It’s the kind of sex and violence stuff that you’d pick up at the airport and leave on the plane after a long flight. I’m not sure that I would have wanted my mother to read it! It is available as an e-book from Amazon.com for $US 9.99.

Based on a true crime that has never been solved, ‘Second Bite’ explores the warped sexual fantasies of the prime suspect and the extreme stresses on the murder team which nearly result in the death of leader DCI Paul Perry; the early use of DNA profiling; police entrapment; romance and a continuous search through a labyrinth of luck and dogged detection that takes us from England to Australia to New Zealand to arrive at a shocking and violent conclusion.

Here are the opening paragraphs:
Part One
It begins on Monday 11 November 1985
He came at her suddenly from the bushes, moaning and blathering, eyes wild and staring, their irises isolated in whiteness like a terrified horse. He grabbed at her coat with a filthy, blood-stained hand, plucking at her sleeve with long, thin fingers. His clothing, a light, cream, woollen track suit mired in mud, clay, grass streaks and monstrous gobs of blood was in disarray, flecked with small leaves and grass and torn in small nicks as if it had been caught momentarily on barbed wire or thorns.

Shocked and apprehensive she sought to pull away, staggering backwards and almost losing her balance as her dog, a whimpering spaniel, circled, loosely winding its lead around her ankles.
The man tottered away, shuffling sideways across the gravel path; as he did so he pointed towards the light screen of bushes and he croaked, in a half demented voice, ‘In there, in there, I slipped, an accident, I didn’t mean… oh she’s so disgusting…’

Maureen Caswell, still stunned by this shattering turn of events on what, just moments before, had been a leisurely late afternoon stroll on Thames Glebe with Charlie, her spaniel, watched the man as he stumbled down the green bank towards the river where, crossing a low-tide beach of mud and shingle he immersed himself fully, to reappear with a howl of despair while spastically dousing his head with handfuls of river water and scraping at his clothing, face and hair to rid himself as quickly as possible of the awful mess that mottled his body.

The dog had freed Maureen and now sat beside her, whining softly, as she took stock, the automatic disciplines of analysis and preparation for action already working in her mind. Maureen was no ordinary middle-aged, city-dwelling, office-working woman; she was a nursing sister of many years experience in the big London hospitals, accustomed to making triage decisions in response to the butchery of accident and emergency. She’d seen it all: faces in shreds from drunken attacks with broken bottles at closing time; fractured bones of car collisions poking raggedly through skin; eyes gouged, ears ripped, knife wounds … no, it was not what she’d just seen that stopped Maureen Caswell in her tracks, it was the suddenness of an event completely out of context.

Now he had moved from the water and sat on the Thames bank, his head in his hands, swaying backwards and forwards like a lonely child and spasmodically shivering in the cool breeze of late autumn - she suspected it was more from trauma than from cold despite his sodden track suit which clung heavily to his humped shouders. She half moved towards him but stopped, reflecting.

‘She’s so disgusting…’ he’d raved.

She turned away and stepping off the path, gingerly pushed her way through the shrubbery to the grassy bank which lay away from the river and ran quite steeply for a few metres until it met a dense screen of thorn bushes and mature trees beyond which a natural darkness was already deepening as early evening advanced.
Something gleamed whitely at the base of the bushes. [End of extract]

If you would like to purchase a hard copy of Second Bite please contact me at donovan@ihug.co.nz


At Fiesole, Above the Smog of Florence

Fiesole is a hill town eight kilometres north of Florence where the familia Medici used to weekend away from the vengeful Savonarola and the smelly proletariat. Driving up the wide curves of the Via San Domenico past stately houses in terraced grounds I can feel the air clearing and see clarity emerging as the sunlight penetrates the thinning filter of Florence’s air. It gets prettier: the sloping green fields on either side silvered and shimmering with olive groves. Fiesole is older than Florence. It was founded by the Etruscans, who seem to me to have had it all over the Romans but don’t get quite as positive a historical spin.

In the plane-bordered, sun-beaten, sloping square there is one of the nicest statues I’ve yet seen of the much memorialized Garibaldi. On horseback in this 1906 monument he’s in expansive mood, greeting and meeting King Victor Emmanuel II at Teano, north of Naples, in 1860. They’re a genial pair, it must have been a great encounter for them: Garibaldi had conquered Sicily and Naples and presented Vittorio Emanuele with half of the kingdom which would come fully into being in 1870 when Italy, ending fifty years of risorgimento, became unified.

In the Zona Archeológica are the excavations of the Roman theatre where a guide tries to summon up the past to a group of visitors seated on the auditorium’s curved stones. I wonder how much history seeps up through their bottoms from the grey granite that must have supported thousands of others in its time? Beyond are the Roman baths and earlier, Etruscan, remains of a third century BC temple. Notwithstanding the age of the remnants I feel no ghosts here, just a pleasant park to walk in; but I’m grateful for Fiesole, it lifts my spirits after the miasma of Florence.

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’


16 September 2009

Aerial Top Dressing

I had a memorable day photographing these and other shots of aerial top dressing on to hill country in the Kaipara area north of Auckland. For both of these shots I was actually standing on a hill higher than the aircraft's altitude!

The technique of broadcasting fertilizers by aircraft was pioneered in New Zealand, its genesis being in the 1920s. But it took off (literally) after the second world war using adapted aircraft such as the DC3 Dakota and over the years has progressed to the point where aircraft like the Fletcher FU24 in these photographs are now specially designed and built.

It's a dangerous game with little margin for error when holding to hill contours, avoiding power lines, trees and pylons, and landing and take-off often use short, steep inadequate runways of varying surfaces with potholes, livestock and fences to be negotiated.

Tragically, the man who piloted the aircraft in these pictures, Peter Beatty, who had over 14000 hours of flying experience, died with his loader/passenger a few months later when his aircraft crashed into bush-clad hills near Whangarei.


15 September 2009

Il pranzo, passero and spongeing bimbos

From La Rampa: the Jewish Temple
Below the Piazza Michelangelo, Ristorante La Rampe is a haven. Uncrowded. We are given a table on a shaded loggia with a million-dollar view across the Arno, the whole city open to us. A cool breeze carries a mixture of the better smells of Florence: aromatic greenery and flowers below the terrace, pasta sauces, oregano, coffee, maybe something from the river. Sounds waft in, too, those of a big town; underlying murmur of traffic punctuated by a distant car alarm in counterpoint with a police siren and a the measured melancholy monotone of a church bell.
Sparrows, the world’s best mendicants, know the loggia and beg for crumbs. (Italian for sparrow is passero. In English, the order to which sparrows belong is passeriformes - perching birds - which also includes jays, blackbirds, finches; half of all the members of the bird kingdom. Passero comes from Latin: sparrow from old English. You never know when you might need this sort of information for Trivial Pursuit.)
Two girls at the next table, a fat blonde American, and a slim Iraqi with raven hair and olive-skin, offer to photograph the four of us with my Olympus mju. The Iraqi says she’s ‘in movies on the production side’ but despite that and having told us that she also has a mju just like mine, she has no idea how to set the fill-in flash. I wonder what her movies are like? The blonde, the Iraqi tells us with that broad confidence all boy-racers have, runs an advertising agency in the USA. She looks about nineteen - the Madonna of Madison Avenue. I wonder what her ads are like? They each bum a cigarette from Valerie and we quietly drop them from the conversation. Give me older women anytime - have I said that before?

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’


14 September 2009

Coober Pedy: South Australia

White fellow’s hole in the ground’. 

(English translation of Coober Pedy)

Remember the old joke?

Question: ‘What do you get when you cross an elephant with a kangaroo? Answer: ‘Holes all over Australia’.
You could be forgiven for thinking that that’s what’s happened at Coober Pedy for the desert surrounding this arid outpost in outback South Australia is a lunar landscape of craters. But they weren’t made by fantastic monsters, they are vertical shafts or large, open trenches formed by miners searching the land for opals, Australia’s national gemstones. You see, the infuriating thing about opal mining is that unlike gold or silver where you follow a lead until it’s worked out, there are no wide seams. So you try and try again, leaving holes wherever you go!
Drilling for Opal

Coober Pedy would not exist were it not for opals. It’s apparent that not even the local aboriginal tribes had a name for the place for it was only after the opal field was discovered in 1911 by a fourteen year old boy, Will Hutchinson, that they called it Coober Pedy - ‘white fellow’s hole-in-the-ground’. It is an inhospitable place where little grows naturally and where, without human modification, all that would move upon the land would be snakes, lizards, the odd slinking dingo or soot-black emu, and ubiquitous carrion birds - nature’s undertakers.

Here where summer temperatures often greatly exceed 45 degrees Celsius and winter nights can be bitterly cold, men work underground because they must: but they live underground because they choose to. Sometime early in the history of Coober Pedy, long before the invention of air-conditioners, somebody discovered that, underground, the average year-round temperature is about 23 degrees and that if you carve man-made caves into the low hills and fill them with furniture, home appliances, carpets, books and paintings you can have a home fit for a king.

So, over the years, as happens with all frontier or industrial towns (especially those which turn also into tourist attractions) comfort and civilization have been added to make life not only tolerable but positively luxurious and Coober Pedy now boasts (both terrestrial and subterranean) several hotels and motels, some excellent restaurants many of which specialize in local cuisine such as emu and kangaroo steak; art galleries, opal shops and displays, supermarkets, banks, an underground bookshop and variety shops.

When I visited Coober Pedy on a photographic trip with an old friend we had approached from the north, from Ayers Rock, along the 3000km Stuart Highway that connects Darwin with Adelaide. Passing through the conical heaps of mining tailings that border the highway, we arrived in a golden twilight, and booked into the town’s famous underground motel. Not liking the idea of early interment I was pleased to find that they offered above-ground rooms but I was grateful that they were air-conditioned. The proprietor proudly showed us his diplays of opals and I marvelled at their range of colours and their sparkling lustre. He explained that they are formed of solidified silica gel whose spherical particles, when perfectly aligned within the stone, will refract the brilliant spectral colours that make opal so unique and distinctive.

Rough opal: $250 000 worth
Next day we took an hour’s flight over the town and its surrounds in a light aircraft. From above it’s almost surreal, the opal workings and their ‘heaps’ not unlike the casts of burrowing insects. The surface seemed deserted apart from the odd ‘blower’ blasting loose spoil from drilled shafts but I knew that there were people working below the surface as I’d been told that opals work a spell, leading miners on, always in the expectation of a big find under the next rock. To the north of the town I could see The Breakaways, a series of beautiful ochreous hills which we later visited by Jeep and photographed: some of the scenes from ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ were shot among their broad scrub-filled valleys, crumbling ridges and coronet crested hills.

Later we visited our pilot’s opal claim where he and his brother, having so far had a bad day, thrust two copper rods into my hands and invited me to walk back and forth to see if I had any gifts as a diviner. Alas, nothing happened, but nevertheless, as if I were a visiting magician, they asked me where they should drill and I pointed to a spot somewhere in the stone strewn middle distance. The brothers painstakingly lowered their rig, shifted it to the new place, stabilized the platform, threw the drill motor into gear and sent the one metre diameter cylindrical bit screaming into the earth. We left them drilling, oblivious to everything except their hole - great expectations.

Underground Serb Orthodox church
Wherever they come from miners are almost a race in themselves - but one apart from ordinary people; Australian, Irish, Chinese, Californian, Scots, whatever, they equally share the perils and, unequally, the rewards of riches they may or may not win from the earth. Because their lives, especially in the early days, were so hazardous they often craved spiritual support and so it’s not uncommon to find churches of various denominations in mining towns - many of them richly endowed. Coober Pedy is no exception: it has four underground churches one of the most impressive of which is the Serb Orthodox Church of the Holy Prophet Elijas. By chance the augurs which drilled the roof of the nave out of the rock left it appropriately vaulted, and the subtle illumination of the altar screen contrasts superbly with the brilliant colours of the stained ‘glass’ window - the only source of natural light.

A typical dugout house. It’s under that hill.
Before we left Coober Pedy we were invited, by our pilot/miner and his wife to see the new home they were excavating south of the town. It’s in a ‘sub-division’, but where you’d expect to find streets formed and bordered by green lawns and shade trees there’s apparently nothing until you notice windows and doors let into the sides of low hills above which sprout television aerials, air ventilation pipes and radio masts.
Our hosts’ ‘dugout’, a series of rectangular burrowings, will eventually be a sumptuous subterranean ‘mansion’ of 460 square metres equipped with every modern convenience cool in the searing summer and warm under cloudless chilly desert nights.

I asked the pilot’s wife whether anybody had ever drilled a hole into somebody else’s house from the other side of a hill.

‘Oh - it happens quite often,’ she said, ‘but when it does they just apologise, back off, and fill in the hole!’
I wonder whether the opal miners are equally tolerant if somebody drills into their claim?
Clearly everything that’s worth anything is underground in Coober Pedy.


It’s All In the Mind

When you’re four down with five to go in a best-of-nine competition it makes no difference to the final result because, all things being equal you could win the next four and find yourself at evens for the last race. So why are you at such a disadvantage?

Similarly, but conversely, why is playing at home an advantage to the local team? The wind blows for you in the first half and against you in the second. If the field slopes it slopes for both teams equally. And in international games the authority is always careful to find neutral referees, umpires and line judges.
Well, the commentators and analysts will tell you that if you’re the apparent underdog you have a big psychological hurdle to overcome. As Neddy Seagoon used to say in ‘The Goon Show’: ‘It’s all the mind, Jim. It’s all in the mind…’

My granny and all good mums have always been only too well aware of how the mind affects performance in life and they’d readily understand the common cliché ‘the feel-good factor’. It is what good grooming is all about. I mean, does it really make a logical difference if you have a hair-do? Or manicure? Or put on some lippy, blusher, blacken your eyelashes or sport subtle greeny-bluey eyelids?

Once a year granny used to take herself off to the seaside. On the bleak Victorian promenade of Brighton in Sussex she would breathe deeply, face bravely into the salt laden gale that scoured her roseate cheeks, work up an appetite and then repair to some side street café to lunch on a slice of pork pie washed down with Mackeson’s Stout and declare that ‘a change was as good as a rest’, and ‘a little bit of what you fancy does you good’.

Her descendent female line, had she had one, would, these days, have sought the feel good factor in a range of sophisticated cosmetics whose advertising promised beauty and hope; creams to restore youth and remove wrinkles, vitamin supplements especially formulated for women, and sun lotions whose magical properties would give them anything between an instantaneous Mediterranean tan or an unaltered pink under the glare of the midday sun.

All the logic and science in the world would not convince granny’s descendents that little in those nostrums would halt the march of age or wrinkles. They only knew that they made them feel good.
Doctors call it the placebo effect; most healing and good health comes about because of what’s in the mind. Perhaps we should bear in mind that part of the Hippocratic Oath goes: ‘Primum Non Nocere’ - ‘above all, do no harm’. If the cream, lotion or pill that hints at a therapeutic effect isn’t harmful, leave it alone. If it makes somebody feel good that’s all that matters.


13 September 2009

Florence, dog shit and Donatello

Distance, of course, lends enchantment. There was never a truer saying - especially about big cities. Florence is one of the cities I like least. Its atmosphere is clogged with traffic fumes eating inexorably into crumbling masonry. The pavements are traps of dog shit. The crowds press, bug-eyed and weary. The shopkeepers and restaurateurs fleece like skin-nicking shearers. The centro storico is so old and tired that it’s impossible to get a whole shot of most of the notable buildings because they’re in constant states of repair, clothed like seaweedy rocks with green mesh netting or corseted by scaffolding, some of which looks as if it’s been in situ longer than the buildings themselves.

By rights I should like cities. I should be in awe of them: repositories of great art and architecture. But the potential joy is destroyed by the numbing wait in serpentine queues that lie in tight folds outside the galleries. It’s simply not worth that pain to see Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’, or Michelangelo’s ‘David’. (I wonder about David - his hands are too big). My indifference to cities comes from being a Londoner, growing up in a metropolis that one wears like an old overcoat - no awe, no fear - total familiarity. The flip side of the country boy who’s dumbfounded by the city, I am forever astounded by the country.

Not that I care nothing for great art. One of my most memorable confrontations was in Florence, at the Museum of the Fabric of Santa Maria del Fiore, the ‘Opera del Duomo’, where I gazed, disturbed, at the 1450-ish ‘The Magdalen in Penitence’ by Donatello, a free-standing, life-sized wooden figure of a woman in rags - enduringly poignant. But oddly, for some sort of an artist myself, it’s art in engineering that impresses me most: especially that marvellous dome of Brunelleschi’s which was finished in 1463. Double-skinned, the substantial inside supporting the shell of the outside, it was built without steel scaffolding, high-rise cranes, electrical hoists, reinforced concrete, chemical solvents or adhesives, or computer-aided design: just art, experience and inspiration. Timeless.

No, not timeless, nothing lasts for ever, as Osymandius’s statue discovered, and in a country where earthquakes (terremoto) are common and many national treasures have been pulverised into history, the dome of the duomo could topple any time (as could the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I wonder how many cameras will capture that event? Perhaps it’ll happen at night. It will happen. I can’t think of any other country in the world where the Leaning Tower would have stayed upright for 650 years; only in Italy…)

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’


Florence and The Arno River

I want to go to Florence for one photograph which I missed in 1992 and 1995, a view of the city and the Ponte Vecchio from across the Arno River. From the map it appears that at late morning, with the sun very slightly east of south, the best vantage point will be the Piazzale Michelangelo.

For once in our lives the traffic jam is on the other side of the autostrada - all Florence is heading for the beaches. It’s marvelous to be able to travel at 130 km/h without having a speed camera hidden in the bushes; the wonder of it is that even at that speed we are constantly overtaken by smart machinery doing well over the ton (160 km/h) - big Mercedeses, Alfas, Lancias, the occasional Jaguar, Ferrari, Lamborghini or even the odd Saab 9000 like mine. Fat chance I’d have of doing 160 kays in New Zealand. Italian motorway discipline is superb, everybody stays to the ‘slower’ right hand lanes except when overtaking, and if there is somebody in your way they move over if you flash your lights to let them know you’re behind them. At home that would induce road rage!

We arrive at the north bank of the Arno River and cross on the Ponte della Vittoria to wind our way up the leafy avenue of the Viale Michelangelo near the Boboli Gardens. For some strange reason the Viale Michelangelo becomes the Viale Galileo only to revert once it leaves the Piazzale Michelangelo - our destination. (I think the Italians like changing all these names because they like saying them. This is the most treasured language I’ve ever heard and everybody seems to luxuriate in its pronunciation; it’s the language of people born to poetry).

Piazzale Michelangelo is one damned great car park with hundreds of people milling about. A monster replica of Michelangelo’s David glares at peasants licking ice creams and wearing stupid hats. I get the feeling that it wouldn’t take much for him to suddenly come to life and piddle all over the crowd. Souvenir stands abound selling maps of the city, guide books in Italian, French, English, German, Japanese; straw hats, cotton hats, plastic hats; tee-shirts; ‘David’ pencil sharpeners; paperweights of Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome in snowstorms; brass or plastic ashtrays; buttons, badges and patches. Tired looking stallholders with cancerous suntans have the shifty, narrow-faced eyes of old shafters. Every race under the sun is here with point-and-shoot cameras, flashes going off in all directions in direct competition with the sun; videotape recorders… I hate the place instinctively and, what’s more, the shot I want isn’t here, there’s too much foreground, I want to get over it all and see the Arno, the bridge and the city without a cluttered foreground.

On a terrace below the piazzalle we find an open air café. I walk to the edge of the wide viewing parapet. There is The Shot - it’s got everything, good foreground with a gorgeous jumble of terra-cotta tiled roofs, deep angle into the river, bridge and city all in excellent light. I set up the camera interchanging telephoto and wide angle zoom lenses to take a series of pictures; happy that I’ve got what I came for.

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’


12 September 2009

My Thankyou to the Fighter Boys

I made this pencil drawing in a sketchbook when I was about seventeen.

It was with surprise that while chatting recently to a remarkably youthful 91 year-old I discovered that he was a survivor of those precious few New Zealanders who had voluntarily given their services to the Royal Air Force in World War Two. He arrived in England in 1940, a little late for the Battle of Britain, but he served with distinction flying Spitfires throughout the war.

I can’t imagine that any twenty-two year old New Zealander would today be drawn towards such a conflict, or to volunteer to fight on behalf of what has become an increasingly distant and unconnected country. Our emotional and familial connexions with Britain grow less relevant by the day as our ethnic mixture continues to dilute old Britishness. No regrets, that’s just the way of a changing world.

But while strong ties to Britain remain within the living memory of some of us they have a worth that should not be treated with disdain or cynicism.

What motivated young Kiwis to join the RAF at the beginning of that war? I doubt that they were they spurred by distaste for what they’d heard of the Nazis; political idealism rarely inspires young men. Perhaps it was because of their ancestry, feeling close enough to the old country to feel a sense of loyalty or patriotism? Or was it to draw a bow at adventure? Ah - that’s more likely.

Listening to that old Spitfire pilot reminded me that the 1940 Battle of Britain is commemorated on 15 September every year and that there will still be memorial services held during the week that surrounds it. This year’s will be the sixty-ninth anniversary of when nearly 3000 men who fought in Fighter Command in 1940 will be acknowledged. Of them 544 died that summer and nearly 800 more died before the end of the war in 1945. Of those who survived there are now very few left; a handful of old men who you wouldn’t notice in the street, physically (if not spiritually) diminished by age, many dependent, many helpless, and yet one or two miraculously able.

Soon, as that generation dies and the Second World War takes its place in hazy history, the commemoration of the Battle of Britain will start to be forgotten and its dates and details will live only in regimental tradition as do The Somme, the Relief of Ladysmith, Trafalgar, and beyond those, Waterloo, the Defeat of the Armada and Agincourt. Rightly so: each generation must honour its own heroes while time dulls the edge of pain.

I recall the summer skies of South-East England in 1940; I was seven-and-a-half years old. I remember the throbbing formations of German bombers, the popping of aerial gunfire, that distinctive sound of the Spitfire’s Merlin engine and the black puffs of anti-aircraft explosions. I recall noisy nights in an air raid shelter; a fear that was only ameliorated by having parents nearby. I recollect a small boy’s bursting feeling of pride at the glimpse of an RAF pilot in uniform, those embroidered wings, the odd medal ribbon - perhaps a Distinguished Flying Cross - that undone top tunic button which was the battle mark of one of the fighter boys. Boys! They looked like old soldiers to me and yet so many of them had just left school.

Only later did I come to realize how much, in Churchill’s words, we many owed to that few. Hindsight tells us that had it not been for those squadrons and the insight of their two great commanders, Hugh Dowding and our own New Zealander Keith Park, I might, today, have had German as my first language. Perhaps the Americans would have freed us eventually but that, too, would have had its price.

For the freedoms I have enjoyed since 1940 I therefore take this journalistic opportunity to thank the men of the Battle of Britain and all of those men and women from all the countries of the old empire and commonwealth. Opportunity for gratitude is fading fast. And I particularly thank my chance conversation with that eighty-five year old Spitfire pilot for reminding me; God bless you, sir.



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By Don Donovan