Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

14

Good as gold

Everyone should have read the book by now. No, not Dirty Politics (although you should have read that too). The other one that came out quietly at the end of last year and has become the silent witness to this entire election campaign: Max Rashbrooke’s Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis. The one you probably feel, at this point, like you have read.

Last July, I went to the Auckland launch. It began with a lecture by Professor Robert Wade that was so popular, the lecture theatre overflowed. Inequality was evidently an idea people were itching to talk about, to see treated with seriousness and care.

At the party after the lecture, I waited some time for a word with the book’s editor, Max Rashbrooke. He confessed he was new to this book-signing business and sometimes accidentally scribbled “Love, Max”. I suggested he practice a few feistier salutations so they came naturally when he reached for the pen – like, I dunno, “Smash the state,” that sort of thing. 

He didn’t miss a beat, and signed my copy: “For Jolisa, with best wishes! Smashing the state… with love... Max Rashbrooke.”

Golden.

I’d been commissioned to review the book, which was a bit of a challenge as I’m neither an economist nor a sociologist. But I read it carefully, took notes, did my best. It was a pretty dense review, so I was asked to make it a bit, well, sexier. Something for the general reader.

So I wrapped my take on Inequality in a mention of another book that came out at the same time: Peter Alsop and Gary Stewart’s gorgeous collection of advertising imagery, Promoting Prosperity: The Art of Early New Zealand Advertising.

For various reasons my review never saw the light of day, so here it is now, a year later (but better than never).    

--

Inequality and Prosperity: A Delayed Review 

Turns out, there was a golden age. You can see it all over the pages of Peter Alsop and Gary Stewart’s Promoting Prosperity: The Art of Early New Zealand Advertising (Craig Potton Publishing, 2013). The artistry in the commercial art is spectacular, but what’s even more striking is the quotidian nature of the things being marketed so lovingly.

A solid house, a good night’s rest, a strong pair of shoes. Hats, tobacco, apples, bacon (“sit down to the nicest breakfast possible”), all surrounded by a halo of health and happiness.  A pound of Anchor’s finest sits on the good china in the middle of the table, glowing like a gold brick.  This is our shared patrimony: democracy on toast. Because after all, who doesn’t like a little bit of butter on their bread?

Which is not to say that in the good old days, everyone had everything they wanted, or even needed. But I’d wager that a huge part of the nostalgic pull of this book is that subliminal egalitarianism: New Zealand’s idea of itself as a basically fair and decent sort of place. These ads capture a time when prosperity, once the province of the very few, was being promoted to the many.

And was being enjoyed by the many, too, according to a collection of essays edited by journalist Max Rashbrooke, Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis (Bridget Williams Books, 2013). Across the developed world, during this mid-century “long boom”, the gap between wealth and poverty shrank considerably – until the 1980s, when aggressive deregulation sent money flying back from the poor to the rich.  In the same period, New Zealand went from punching above its weight, equality-wise, to punching the poor in the face, policy-wise. 

In a sense, Inequality, from its title onwards, is the photographic negative of Promoting Prosperity. No alluring full-colour pictures, just serious black and white words and sobering graphs confirming what anyone with eyes and ears suspects – that the rich are getting way richer; the poor are getting screwed; and this is bad for all of us. It’s a timely and useful read, a book with heart designed to engage the mind.

For the lay reader – and perhaps inevitably, given the academic and policy leanings of both content and contributors – it might feel a little Weetbix-without-milk. Thankfully, Rashbrooke has interleaved shorter personal “viewpoints” between the crunchier chapters, stories and interviews.

These accounts of ground-level encounters with inequality are instantly readable, and enraging and encouraging by turns. If you just read those fourteen pieces, you’ll have gotten value for money. But they also provide useful ways back into the denser discussions, inspiring the reader to join the dots.

As a whole, the collection argues that while a certain amount of imbalance is unavoidable, inequality on the current scale is dehumanizing all of us. It’s bad for those who are struggling, of course. But it’s also terrible for those who can no longer imagine what that struggle might be like – creating an “empathy deficit” that’s as dangerous as any fiscal one.

And it’s becoming geographically entrenched: with rising socioeconomic segregation in our biggest cities, and extremes of poverty and wealth hiding out in the provinces, we literally no longer see each other.

Putting the filter of education over the book pulls together a compelling picture. School zones function more than ever like the Hogwarts “sorting hat”: fast-tracking alpha kids to greater heights, while concentrating poorer students together, which amplifies the impact of patchy attendance and health and behavioural issues. Lower decile schools have higher student turnover, as poorer families are much more likely to rent than own, and renters (whose housing is more often of poor quality) move more often than home-owners do. Children who move more often do less well at school, and so on. Do the maths: what’s the radius of a vicious circle?

And yet, as Cathy Wylie reminds us in her chapter, children do better at school when they know what the goal is and can see their place in the data. A little transparency goes a long way, a lesson that can usefully be applied outside the classroom: if we can lay bare the scope and the mechanisms of inequality, perhaps we can act before it reaches a tipping point. But how best to do this?

Contributor Mike O’Brien points out that the rich are incentivized by giving them more money to play with – tax cuts, family trusts, etc – so why do we assume that a punitive, money-snatching approach will have the same effect on the poor? (Also useful to know: the poor are proportionately more charitable with what little they do have; the little widow’s mite goes a long way).

This distancing and othering of the poor is a big part of the problem, argues Linda Tuhiwai Smith. She suggests that instead, we take a close look at the workings of privilege: turning the lens on the luckier lot, to reveal how they get that way and, crucially, how they make sure they stay that way.  These are the people who “get to speak to power as an equal rather than as a supplicant. They know that public servants are actually their servants.” (This approach chimes with the almost too-true-to-be-good research from Berkeley, which reported that people primed to think of themselves as rich are more likely to help themselves to free candy – even after they’ve been told it’s being collected for children).

Giving the poorest kids a leg-up – even if it’s just “the nicest breakfast possible” – is a great start, and a relatively easy sell – but the book offers many other practical suggestions, from micro to macro. A universal, unconditional basic income.  Free childcare for people earning under $25,000 p.a. Capital gains tax; inheritance tax. A work-placement system that works “with (not against) the realities of life on a benefit [and] today’s workplace.” Plus, y’know, all that other stuff Scandinavian countries do.

The book also suggests a shift in the national mood, back to a culture of restraint. How much is enough, at the personal and structural level? How much more should the boss earn than the person who cleans their office? What if businesses refused to race to the bottom, when it comes to minimum wage? “Excessive inequality is a product of market failure,” writes Paul Barber, in a call for greater regulatory oversight to ensure that the wealth we all help generate doesn’t concentrate at the very top.

In the final chapter, Tuhiwai Smith issues a “call for concepts”, because “compelling stories need new language that moves people to act collectively and with will.”  I am neither an economist nor a sociologist, so I may have missed some of the nuances of this collection. But it certainly feels like a helpful invitation to a conversation we should be having across all media, in many voices and registers.

At the sitting-in-the-aisles-room-only Auckland launch of the book in July, Professor Robert Wade mentioned the surprise bestseller The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Always Do Better. It was an encouraging sign that it was so popular, he said – and then lamented that sales were still wildly outstripped by a certain shady-grey trilogy. Well, there’s a fun challenge. How to sex up the no-nonsense yearning for a more equal and just society?

Maybe that’s where the visual, witty, dart-to-the-heart language of advertising – as captured by Alsop and Stewart – might step back in. Promoting asperity, but integrity as well. If we want real traction in promulgating a more democratic definition of prosperity, then for every academic book and heartfelt editorial and pithy tweetfest, let’s have some posters, slogans, lesson plans, songs, kick-arse graffiti. And some tasty shining symbols to remind us what it’s all about. Share the love. Pass the butter. Spread the word.

--

And in fact, it’s as if someone read my unpublished drafts folder. Because that’s exactly what’s happened over the course of the last year: an explosion of witty, arresting visual and creative work, much of it done for free. Amidst the TL:DR morass of daily discourse, these gems cut through the discussion and show us in a flash what we’re talking about. 

Just off the very top of my head:

And so much more. 

After the votes are counted, there’ll be time to sit and read the books, to sift through the commentary, to figure out what’s next. But for now – for today - what’s been your singular, shining image of what’s at stake right now? Which picture or metaphor – satirical or serious – has been worth a thousand words, or a thousand retweets? Post or link to it below (including source and author if possible).

It may rain on Election Day, but it’s up to us to keep things golden beyond that. 

179

School bully

When the National government introduced National Standards four years ago, I didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing.  I’d been watching our older son acclimatise to public schools in New Haven, Connecticut, where kids and teachers alike struggled to breathe freely in the toxic atmosphere of No Child Left Behind.

You can read that story – my long, slow realisation that the testing-tail was wagging the educational dog – here, if you haven’t already. Go on. I’ll wait. It’s a good one.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” I asked at the time.

I was pretty confident of two things:

a) that the US model, or something like it, was indeed where the National/ACT policy was eventually headed (with the side effect -- some would say ultimate goal -- of disrupting the professional educational organisations)

b) that New Zealanders would never fall for something so transparently second-hand, dodgy, and unkind to children.

Over the past four years, the jigsaw pieces slotted into place; and each time they did, I retweeted the heck out of that original piece. At times, I wondered: am I being too suspicious? Am I drawing a line where others would see random dots? Are the National Party and their ACT colleagues really disingenuous enough to serve New Zealanders these warmed-up leftovers and think we won't notice?

Hey, maybe it’s just a coincidence that the Prime Minister had a cup of tea with a Minister who suddenly got all excited about charter schools, and it’ll just be a nice surprise when they bring their corporate mates - running out of options overseas, keen for fresh markets for their educational snake oil -  into our schoolyards under the cover of “lifting achievement”. It’s just, y’know, pollies making policy. Flying a few kites, sinking a few cuppas.

Then, in an interview with the Herald published yesterday, Education Minister Hekia Parata blurted out her plans to link school funding to student “progress.”

Even the Herald was amazed that she should champion a “policy [that has] served only to increase the gap between the top schools and the bottom ones, penalising children at the latter.” Ms Parata, they wrote in an editorial, has “revealed the Cabinet's firm conviction that freemarket ideology is as applicable to purchasing school education as it is to buying a BMW or a nice dinner at one of Simon Gault's restaurants.”

The Minister’s advisers are apparently scrambling to correct any misapprehensions. Or as the Herald has it: “her advisers are unhappy because she has been caught out - caught out telling the truth.”

This morning, the Minister fronted on National Radio to say that she'd been mischaracterised. She conversationalised, conversationally:

“I think that at the point where a longer conversation is held on how we fund into our system there will be a whole range of factors that need to be taken into account - but they will be part of a conversation with the profession itself."

(Did I hear a loud snort from Christchurch at the notion of a "conversation" with the Minister?)

Ms Parata further clarified her position, which is to say, smokescreened mightily with:

“I think that when we’re having a discussion about funding there will be a range of factors that will need to be taken into account. But we’re not having one at the moment.” 

Although even a child can translate that as "Just you wait till after the election." If you're still in any doubt, she followed up with this blanket statement:

“There is no review of funding.” 

The meaning of which, as a far wilier politician once reminded us, depends on the meaning of what "is" is. 

I’m no longer doubtful about whether I’m drawing a long bow here.

--

It's always fascinating to me to see how stories like this take shape and sneak into our discourse, one step at a time. Especially intensely ideological stories that present themselves as series of commonsense logical notions, which is something this government and its advisers are generally very good at. (Help me out if I’ve missed any steps here; relevant links appreciated).

The first move is to point out, quite reasonably, that some children are failing in most schools. It's a truism, but a reliable one for setting the citizenry on edge. Ignoring all relevant socio-economic factors, quickly rephrase this thought as “some schools are failing our children.”

Which ones? Well, let's introduce a testing/assessment regime, y’know, just to measure the scale and scope of the problem. 

Reassure parents that this is “just to reassure parents.” When you get pushback from schools who already carefully assess children and their progress, ask them what they’re trying to hide.

Remind the people that numbers don’t lie. Lie to the people about which numbers are important.

Look a bit surprised when this data is used to assemble “league tables” that rank schools in order of average achievement on a variety of tests. Say that wasn’t at all the intention. Look even more surprised if it should happen that those who can afford to start flocking to more well off schools, tilting the achievement numbers even further. Goodness. Look at the failing schools failing even harder! What's wrong with them? 

Look very surprised indeed if any schools that can get away with it start filtering out special needs children – not actively, just passively discouraging them from being there. 

Meanwhile, casually introduce the notion that some people just do teaching better than others. Hard to argue with, right? Because everyone has a story about that one crappy teacher; encourage them to extrapolate.  (NB avoid the corollary, which would be that some kids just do learning better than others, because that wouldn’t fly - you’d have to ask why. Hunger? Poverty? Racism? Moving around too often because housing is insecure and unaffordable? Whoa whoa, too-hard basket. Hush.)

Start musing about where all that taxpayers’ money goes. Start murmuring about exciting, new, alternative ways to deliver education, which is quite a trick when you're simultaneously yammering on about back to basics. Maybe, if we really loved our children, we’d try different kinds of schools, and “Oh, look: here’s one I prepared earlier.”

But do make it a surprise by not mentioning it during election campaigning. People love surprises.

Call the proposed schools something friendly and disarming: how about “partnership schools”? Who doesn’t like partnership? Not even lefties, LOL! Fudge the fact that New Zealand legislation already provides for different kinds of schools, and that many such schools are doing measurably brilliant things, notably the kūra kaupapa. Emphasise that you’re just adding options. Only the churlish will object to options, or ask why those options can’t be offered inside of the existing system, or point out that the new options look strangely similar to ones that have failed overseas.

Invite applications to run partnership schools before you even pass the legislation, so you can get off to a flying start.  This will be easy, as you’ve been in talks with them all along, including those nice people from America, and you’ve removed any barriers to entry, like pesky teacher registration. While you’re at it, rule out the public being able to have a look at the school’s books, financial or otherwise. Speed, efficiency, are the name of the game. No need for local representation on the school board, either: what do the locals know about what they need? Hurry up: open the schools, get some kids in. Remember, you’ll need to be harvesting a year of demonstrable student “progress” just in time for the upcoming election.

If the partnership schools run into trouble getting started, give them more money, because that’s what struggling schools need. No, silly. Not all struggling schools, just these ones. (Meanwhile, chuck some more money at schools that are Doing Well – the private schools. The more resources they have, the better they do, right? Just those ones, though). When the partnership schools can’t find a way to teach all the subjects, let them “borrow” teachers off the other schools. You know, the bad schools. Presumably they’ll borrow the good teachers.

(Meanwhile, just for giggles and distraction, have a hack at intermediate schools. What a waste, eh, putting those kids into their own special space for a breather between infancy and adolescence? What could they possibly learn with two years in their own bubble, apart from social skills, time-management, open-mindedness, confidence, speaking skills, technical subjects, water safety, art, drama, music, sports, the nicely compressed opportunity to experience being junior and then senior in a given situation, and a chance to figure out who they are and what they’re interested in without the pressure of Choosing Subjects and Thinking About Careers? Jeez, who needs that kind of woolly nonsense, especially at that age? Go on, close some intermediates and set up a few mega-schools in a city that’s not in a position to fight back – do it quick, you’ll need to be harvesting those “progress” results in time for the election, too.)

Then, ever so casually, reintroduce the idea (you were knocked back on this before, but don’t let it stop you) of linking school funding to student achievement, thus "incentivising" achievement. Kids doing well? Here’s some extra dosh. Kids failing? No more money for you, fail harder. Laugh merrily when asked if this could possibly lead to any of the following:

  • teaching to the test
  • a curriculum based on learning answers rather than generating questions
  • the steady loss of “non-testable” subjects, except in private schools and high-decile ones (art, music, sports, water safety) (even in high-decile ones like Lorde’s old school) 
  • a culture of cheating and tricks and fudges (at the worst, the Atlanta teacher pizza parties, where teachers spent weekends erasing “wrong” answers and putting in right ones, because otherwise their schools would lose funding.)
  • the government closing “failing schools” and bringing in, oh for example, outfits like KIPP to run them. 

WHOOPS! WAIT! Mistake! Pull up! Don’t mention the funding thing before the election! Because if you do, voters might actually join the dots! Especially if they’ve watched The Wire, or House of Cards. 

And if you go off half-cocked on this one, voters might even get to wondering what other nasty surprises are being held in readiness for after the election in all the other sectors that matter to them.

--

That’s the trail of stale breadcrumbs – well, some of them anyway. Follow the path, children, deep into the corporate-education forest. All the way to the rotten gingerbread house. 

I mean, what could possibly go wrong? 

--

Of course, mine is just one way to tell this story. Having brought our kids back to New Zealand two years ago in large part because of what we were observing in US schools, it’s been horrifying and disappointing to watch these developments unfold here, one step at a time, each step cloaked in disingenuous denial about the destination.

Teachers in all sorts of schools would tell the story from slightly different angles. Parents of children with particular learning needs would tell it another way.  Māori, Pasifika, immigrant parents would ask different questions about the way this is playing out. Citizens of Christchurch would certainly have their own version of this narrative.

And kids will tell you how it feels for them, if anyone will take the time to ask.   

The child described in my earlier blog post is now a well-grounded Year 8 who is punishingly articulate on the subject of his own education, among many other things. He’s been reading over my shoulder this morning, and his initial response was largely unprintable. Then he started talking more calmly, and I started transcribing.

“They’re going to ruin the schools. How do you pass these tests of “progress”? By doing worksheet upon worksheet upon worksheet. But what do you learn from that? You don’t learn how to manage yourself and your time. You don’t learn how to think your way around a problem. It stifles creativity. Maybe you do better on your test score, but how are you going to manage in real life? Sure, I got high scores on those stupid tests in America. But when I got back to New Zealand, I had to learn how to cope with everything else. And the everything else is really important.”  

Really important.

And yet like every schoolkid in New Zealand (except for half of the top class – commonroom voter registration drive, anyone?) he is voiceless when it comes to the polls. Which is where you come in. 

Education is a universal election issue: in the recent Colmar Brunton poll, it was the top issue for voters regardless of political orientation.

It’s an easy issue to push voters on, and it’s an easy one to bamboozle them on with persuasive talk of the "long tail", and lifting student achievement, and so on.

If “education” is indeed the first thing that pops to mind when you’re asked what you care about this election season, I’d encourage you to re-read my original post, and then read more widely on the subject. I’d ask you to think about what it is you really want New Zealand schools to do, and look like. Which is also to say, what you really want New Zealand to do and to look like.

Even if you’re of a mind that the New Zealand education system needs fixing – and heck, everything has room for improvement, that’s sort of the point -- ask whether the answer is really more secret plans and cronyism and a perverse system of “incentivisation” that punishes children and teachers for factors beyond their immediate control and encourages prioritising numbers over human beings.

Ask how these policies think of schools: as a key part of the democratic social fabric that binds us together, community spaces, collectively funded, open to all and open to inspection? As places where every one of us can learn not only what we're capable of for ourselves, but how to play our part of the bigger story?

Or as vectors to individual advancement, easily consolidated and trimmed like so many factories, judged by their balance sheet, with "failing" schools - or students - handily bundled together for sale to the lowest tender? 

Ask, too, what it means when even the US poster child for charters -- Amistad Academy, a school that has spent a decade and a half demonstrably lifting test scores for underachieving kids by dint of long school days, no excuses, and a culture of hard work and tireless passion - is now starting from scratch and redesigning its approach entirely. Why? Because they say "charter schools have focused too much on teaching to low-rigor standardized tests and are ready for a “disruptive” change" -- to a model that embraces precisely the "everything else" my son articulated above.  

Here's some numbers: if a National coalition is re-elected and allowed to plod down their pre-ordained path in the footsteps of their corporate education idols, expect to see NZ partnership schools pulling a similar 180 away from drilling for test scores in 2029, at which point my 12 year old will be 28, an entire generation of our children may have been schooled in the No Child Left Behind manner, and we'll look even sillier for playing catch-up with those guys when we had something so good in the first place. 

Look at the kids you know -- and the ones you don’t know yet, but who’ll be running this place when you’re old and dependent. Look very closely at this government’s track record of dissembling about their plans. Do your homework. And then vote accordingly.

54

“Glory! Glory! There’s the salt!”

The news that Margaret Mahy has written all her stories – for that is what her death means to us as readers, while for her family it is a whole other dimension of inevitable, unfathomable loss -- came to me via Twitter. At first a whisper, then a rustle, and then suddenly words and sentences tumbled down the page as we shared the shock of it. Shock turned to sorrow, which steadily transformed into tribute. People recalled not just indelible lines from life-changing books, but the circumstances of reading them. We remembered where we were, who we were with, and who we were when Margaret cast her spell on us -- as children, as young adults, as parents, grandparents.

I think this is her most powerful gift: to have told stories for everyone. Not for everyone separately, but everyone all at once. The list of her works -- a hundred picture books, twenty volumes of short stories, forty novels –- looks at first glance like a graduated reading programme for a lifetime, one you might work your way through as you grow up. But if you’ve ever read one of her picture books aloud to children – A Lion in the Meadow, say – you know that even her simplest stories carefully make space for the adult alongside the child. The mother in A Lion in the Meadow (an antipodean sister to the mother in Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came for Tea) is integral to the story: she paces alongside the child’s creativity, amplifying it, misreading it, defending it, sometimes overmastered by it, but above all bearing witness to it.

Best of all, this adult presence and perspective is not delivered in a winking, over-the-shoulder aside to the adult reader. For as well as making a plea on behalf of the child to the adult reader, it’s Mahy’s great gift to reveal the secret life of grown-ups to the child reader. She dramatizes their flaws, their silliness, their hidden passions, their childish wishes (oh, the dad in Down the Dragon’s Tongue!). No matter how big we are, her books say, we’re still growing up. And no matter how small we are, we matter.

This embracing, inclusive sensibility persists in her novels for pre-teens and adolescents, which make a point of rendering small children, siblings, parents and other grown-ups as real, fully-rounded, plausibly particular people. A teen may be the heart of the story, but each person she meets has a story of their own. Whatever rung we currently occupy on the ladder of time, we all leave the book a little more empathetic, a little more understanding of others, a little more aware of our common humanity and life’s implacable unfolding logic.

Any one of her books thus works as a magic mirror that reflects its readers as they are, as they were, and as they will be -- and with a subtle nudge, as they could and should be.  If there is a moral argument in Mahy’s fiction, it’s a radical, unfettered imperative to be true to your dear, messy self  -- your daring, inquisitive, forthright, brave, forgiving, passionate, loving, and a little bit bonkers self. And to relish it when others do the same.

So you’re a beautiful and slightly stern librarian called Serena Laburnum, and he’s a hairy brigand by the name of Salvation Loveday who’s come to kidnap you. (“What is it when our librarian is kidnapped?” asked a councillor. “Is it staff expenditure or does it come out of the cultural fund?”). Take events in your stride, while insisting on the rules of the library, and soon enough your unlikely ruffian suitor and his gang of robbers will “then and there [swear] that they would cease to be villains and become librarians instead.” This not only leads to a “remarkably well run” library, but gives you permanent secret pleasure, since you’re “more of a robber at heart than anyone every suspected.”

Or you’re a former free spirit, trapped in a respectable suit in a day job, prone to “turning green and going all limp” on account of a large family and money troubles and the ennui of modern life: “I don’t think parties are what they were. I remember parties that went off with a bang and seemed to fill the air with rainbows and parrot feathers.” Suddenly you’re called upon to host a Great Piratical Rumbustification. Rise to the occasion, Mr Terrapin – grow easy in your mind, welcome the chaos, reap the reward and feel “contentment pour into [your] heart like creamy milk into a porridge bowl.”

Always, the answer comes from within, but catalysed by events and encounters from without. A cat crunches down a poetic mouse and unexpectedly discovers a knack for versifying and philosophising. It's a bit hard for the mouse, and a bit of a poisoned gift for the cat, who's not sure he likes this new way of thinking and speaking.

He felt as if his head was full of coloured lights. Pictures came and went behind his eyes. Things that were different seemed alike. Things that were real changed and became dreams.

That's Mahy's face in the mirror, peeking out from behind her character's whiskers. The cursed cat -- "I don't want to make poetry. I just want to be a cat catching mice and sleeping in the catmint bed" -- finds that poetry has its charms: he talks his way out of trouble with a dog, and makes his peace with the cosmic fortune of his new talent.

The cat went on thinking. “I became a poet through eating the mouse. Perhaps the mouse became a poet through eating seeds. Perhaps all this poetry stuff is just the world’s way of talking about itself.” And straight away he felt another poem coming into his mind.

“Just time for a sleep first,” he muttered into his whiskers. "One thing, I'll never eat another poet again. One is quite enough." And he curled up in the catmint bed for a quick kip-and-catnap as cats do.

(NB All three of these stories, at least in the versions I have, were illustrated by the great Quentin Blake, whose anarchic blotchiness strikes just the right chaotic, kinetic tone. Tempted to post a picture or two.).

I love the hidden depths of the stories for younger children, but it’s in Mahy’s teen fiction that things get even richer. The Catalogue of the Universe is one in particular that keeps pulling me back. Angela and Tycho, dreamy girl and geeky-astronomer boy, roaming Christchurch after dark -- what can I say, it’s a catalogue of my universe at a specific point in time and space.  It’s also a spectacularly well-made story.

Nobody can start a story like Margaret Mahy. Here’s how it begins:

One hot summer night Angela woke up and found she could not go back to sleep again for, beyond her closed eyelids, the room was infected with disturbing silver.

Hot… infected… disturbing… it's a subliminal invitation to surrender to a fever-dream disguised as life. We discover that it’s not the moon that woke Angela, but a swishing sound, “a sound like a whispered word.” Out of bed, she fumbles her way around her moonlit bedroom with her eyes closed, a marvelous writerly device that tells us a great deal about her and her world, as she encounters her treasures, an old teddy, an ominous doll, a desk full of exam notes. She opens her eyes and confronts her own beautiful naked self, “for she refused to wear a nightgown in the summer.” Then comes the sound again: “a whispered word, come and gone before it could be understood.”

Now, unlike some of the plainer, more intellectual heroines of the Mahy canon, Angela knows her power lies in her beauty. “She was her own currency and, being desirable, was able to pay her own way in the ferocious world beyond the fox-faced teddy and the smooth stones.” She knows she’s inherited this beauty from her unknown father, about whom her eccentric single mother won’t speak. With Angela on the cusp of adulthood, this “wonderful dowry” is a time-bomb.

And a third time the sound comes, “a sound as gentle as a hand brushing down a velvet curtain.” Angela moves to the window to discover the source: an arresting vision, for her and for us --  her mother, Dido, “scything the lawn by moonlight… like Mother Time herself.” Absurd, marvellous! Angela says as much herself. "I can't think of one other kid I know who'd wake up at two a.m. and find her mother scything the grass."

I can't think of one other writer I know who'd put that scene in a book set in New Zealand. And look what she's smuggled in. Mother Time. Mother, time. Time for Angela to confront her mother, time to whisper the words she’s been sitting on all these years. Who am I? Who is my father?  Thus the quest begins, both universal and particular; a daughter’s story and the story of a mother, a story of strangeness and estrangement, escape and return.  

And that’s only a tiny, tiny part of what Mahy manages to weave into her scene-setting – there’s so much more in that first short chapter, about the universe, about family, about location, about danger, about Angela's "home that had never quite got as far as being a proper house" (not the other way around, note), before we even get to the second chapter which throws us into Tycho's own disorderly, star-gazing life. Every time I read this book, I linger over that opening. I’m both bewitched by the story and dazzled by the writing. It’s a master class in how to write a first chapter. The chapters that follow only get better.

And then you stumble across a time-warp passage like this, as Angela and Tycho make their way up Colombo St in Christchurch, 1985 or thereabouts:

They were in a street where people had once come to shop, and indeed some of the old shops were still there, hanging on in an insecure and seedy fashion, even the new stock in their windows looking out-of-date and unwanted. All around them the street was changing. Old buildings were beaten down to rubble during the day, vanishing entirely overnight. High wooden fences sprang up, set with little windows so that curious passers-by could peer through them and watch the birth of car parks, drive-in liquor stores, and office blocks. Heavy trucks drove up with huge revolving drums on their backs, and began spewing out grey porridgy torrents of concrete, which waiting men immediately began to spread into place. Suspended above the new surfaces, which were in the process of being created, were walkways of wood, heavy planks along which men could push barrows – a maze hanging above the tender new crust of the city.

A maze, hanging. Amazing. Not just poet, but prophet.

--

So this morning, I put on a silly hat covered with leaves and flowers (the next best thing, me not being in possession of a rainbow afro wig), and talked to a classroom of six year olds about the legend who had just passed. The headline in the paper, which some of them had seen, called her a “giant”, which they found persuasive.  When I asked them to guess how many books this giant woman had written, they shouted “A THOUSAND!!!” -- which felt close enough.

I read them The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate. I’d grabbed it off the shelf that morning in a rush to get to school. It’s not an easy book – Mahy doesn’t write down to children, she writes up to them – but it seemed a suitable choice for a seaside school, a little man and his mother on an optimistic pilgrimage towards the ocean despite various obstacles and doubters."The wonderful things are never as wonderful as you hope they'll be," grumbles a philosopher. "The sea is less warm, the joke less funny, the taste is never as good as the smell."

The robust pirate mother isn't having any of that. She knows where she's going, and her downtrodden son looks perkier the closer they get. “Yes, it’s blue in the sunshine,” she rhapsodises, “and it’s grey in the rain. I’ve seen it golden with sunlight, silver with moonlight and black as ink at night. It’s never the same twice.” She’s talking about the sea, of course, but she might as well be talking about the book itself. Even though I know it’s coming, the moment when they finally see the sea gets me every time.

“Glory! Glory! There’s the salt!” cried his mother triumphantly.

Suddenly they came over the hill.

 

Suddenly there was the sea.

Whoever designed the book knew that you need a double-page spread of Margaret Chamberlain’s gorgeous illustration at that point. Not just to demonstrate the “BIGNESS of the sea”; not just to capture the transformative effect of it on the little man in his brown suit -- “He opened his mouth, and the drift and the dream of it, the weave and the wave of it, the fume and the foam of it never left him again.” But also by way of a pause, so that the adult reader can take a deep breath and stare very hard at something for a minute or so, in order to be able to keep reading thereafter.

Every damn time.

(An aside: the only other New Zealand book that regularly does this to me is Bob Kerr’s magnificently simple, simply magnificent and inexplicably out of print After the War. It has one particular page that’s like a bayonet to the belly, which thankfully usually bypasses the younger readers. I was glad to discover via Google that Mahy and Kerr collaborated at least once).

After reading the story, I told the kids to be sure to look around at home for gold earrings and shiny cutlasses and silver pistols, just in case their own mothers were also secretly pirates. There was a pause and then several hands shot up and a little voice asked, point-blank, with just exactly the right amount of suspicion and scepticism, “Are YOU secretly a pirate?”

Suddenly I stared back at them, not quite sure myself.

Suddenly, I was.

 

Thank you, Margaret Mahy, poet, pirate, writer, mother, giant, for your magical, transformative gift.

258

Sons for the Return Home

Over the years, you have all been so good to me. The last time I asked here for wisdom about moving house, it was on behalf of a two-year-old. Now I’m asking for myself, because this time, the Berenstain Bears just aren’t going to cut it. (Although if you do happen to know of a fixer-upper in Auckland that is shaped like a real tree, in a neighbourhood of friendly squirrels and bunnies, please send me the address.)

For those who haven’t caught up with the news: we’re coming home.

Now, let me be clear (as our current President is given to saying): this is really exciting news. We are all elated about it. It’s great!

But it’s mind-bending, too. I set off mumbleteen years ago with a couple of suitcases and a loyal trailing boyfriend, and am going back with a shipping container’s worth of STUFF, a legal spouse, and a pair of galumphing sons for the return home. That’s a lot of baggage.

And we’ll be leaving so much behind.

Oh, if only I could chop our house into careful quarters and stuff it into the container too, I would. But alas, we must leave it here, in the hands of its next owner – who will, as is proper and right, paint over our grubby fingerprints, the boys’ height markings on the bathroom doorframe, and the paint job my dad did on his last visit here. She’ll make the house her own, as we did, and as did all the inhabitants did before us, going back a century and a half to Hezekiah and Mary Jane, who built it.

Likewise, we’ll leave the garden, and all of the literal roots we have put down over the past eight years – the fruit trees, the perennials, the mad pink rose that clambers over the front porch, the placenta under the dogwood tree. The totoro who live in the tiny “forest” of evergreens at the back of the garden; the praying mantises who descend from a noble line established decades ago by long-gone neighbours; the birds who visit so often they’ve been given names. They will all become creatures of someone else’s domain.

And that’s fine. We’re all only ever temporary tenants of a given patch of ground, as Papatuanuku has recently made irrevocably clear. Ours is a voluntary removal -- a fortunate, planned departure --and that we know where we’re going. Which helps, while I’m carefully dismantling, winnowing, and packing into boxes the only space the children have ever really known as home.

In some ways it feels like we just got here. The happy caravanserai of student years and post-doc-hood, in the course of which we traveled light and shifted every couple of years, somehow led to this temporary medium-term settling down. A house was bought, real furniture acquired; a garden was sown, a second child was born. Slowly I’ve gotten the measure of this town, and thrived in the neighbourly ecosystem of our little street. We’ve all nurtured marvelous friendships, within the occasionally frustrating limits of a transient college town. Good friends left, and others arrived, but for eight fine years, we were among the ones who stayed put. It was novel, and wonderful.

And then just when it seemed we’d be exiles for life -- if not in New Haven, then in other places in the northern hemisphere -- came an offer too good to refuse. An exciting job. An opportunity to bring our family back into the orbit of the larger whanau, to bond with their cuzzies and bask in the glow of grandparental affection and exasperation that is every child’s birthright. An end to the endless winters; a return to food that tastes like food. A chance to give the boys, before it’s too late, a New Zealand childhood.

 

Step into the Tardis, children. We’re going home.

 

Well, sort of. “Moving back to New Zealand” is not exactly the same thing as “going home,” is it?

There’s a half-remembered quote I carry around, without ever quite being able to source it properly (Julia Kristeva?), about how an exile is always an exile in time as well as space. It’s not just that you never cross the same river twice, it’s that sometimes you can’t even find the river any more because some bastard has tunnelised it, so how will you remember where to cross it, and how will the poor eels ever find their way back to the breeding place now?

Or you’re driving along a motorway that didn’t used to be there, across a field that isn’t there any more, and you literally don’t know which way to turn. Or you’re dreaming of a sprawling green quarter-acre, perhaps even an eighth, while the city you’re moving to is calculating that it needs to to jam another 800,000 people into its borders over the next 30 years.

Or you’re indoctrinating your children in the ways of the old country (Kiwi kids don’t mind the rain, they all bike to school, they go barefoot to the shops) while wondering if that’s still true in the new old country. Or you’re fleeing a school system that has prioritized standards-based testing to demonstrably no good end, only to find that – oh dear.

Or, on a more personal level, you stepped out of the room as a bright young thing, and will emerge from the blue police box a little wiser, marginally wider, definitely older. People you were at university with are running the country, or trying to, and how did that happen, and who is that middle-aged person in the mirror, and how come my younger siblings have children, and why are some people just not here any more? Will they come back, if I go back? No? Then where have they gone and why am I crying?

For a long time I’ve been vaguely homesick, like a low-grade fever. Now I think I’m feeling a little timesick. Time comes for us all, but sometimes it feels like, if you just keep moving, you can stay one step ahead of it.  So, we’re moving. Right into the teeth of it. Heading forwards, not backwards – or forwards and sideways, in a knight’s move: one step forward, diagonal dodge. Let’s see how this goes.

 

It’ll be all right. Because time and space wibble and wobble in good ways, too. Many of the things we left in search of turn out to have been back home all along; others have magically popped into existence while we’ve been gone. It’s a brave new world. And what we can’t find, we will make. We will have making-our-own-fun-shaped eyes by the end of this, I tell you.

Flying home from the successful job interview, the astrophysicist in the family says he felt as if he’d landed the biggest fish in the world. There it was, flapping impressively around in the bottom of the boat – well, on the floor of Flight NZ6. Triumph! And then he realized we were going to have to scale this thing, gut it, fillet it into manageable strips, and put it in the freezer. It’s a big job.

Thus the to-do list, a handy way of blunting the psychological trauma of moving by concentrating on the logistics. This is just a tiny slice of the stupidly first-worldy things currently keeping me up at night:

Sort household gear, toys, books, reduce massive stockpile of baby clothes to one box of precious items (sob). Give surplus of everything to local resettlement agency for incoming refugees because, whoah, America has been ridiculously kind to us.

Bring garden tools or best not? Give away house plants.

Start gradual process of moving Huckle down the street to live with his cat boyfriend and sweet family (hard for us, but much kinder to him than putting him on a plane).

Contact lenses. Medical records. Teeth-cleaning. IKEA.

Sell snow gear. WAIT! Global weirding! Keep snow gear!

Groovy lamps: easily rewired at NZ end, or not?

Figure out what to do with boxes of photocopied articles currently lurking in the wardrobe like the giant empty cicada husk of my dissertation. Bonfire of the vanities?

Figure out how to hang onto the ridiculously cheap New Yorker subscription I’ve had since I got here, and have it forwarded to New Zealand (yes, I could read it on the iPad, but you can’t read the iPad in the loo. Well, you shouldn’t). Figure out what to do with enormous pile of paper copies of the New Yorker acquired since I’ve been here (teleport them straight to future bach?).

Figure out how to survive without magical online delivery systems of books, shoes, TV. Remember that I used to survive without magical online delivery systems of books, shoes, TV.

Figure out whether to buy or rent in Auckland. Check bank balance. Check USD-NZD exchange rate. Check myself before I wreck myself. OK. Narrow down where to rent in Auckland (related: find out which schools are resisting the introduction of National Standards, send fan mail to principals).

Remember all those things we always meant to do while still living here. Try to imagine what it will feel like not to just be able to jump on the train and go to New York. Remind self how often one actually does this. Vow to do it as many times as possible in next two months.

And most importantly, amongst all of this, spend time with people before we go, because: he tangata, he tangata, he tangata

 

My dad was a huge fan of to-do lists, both for himself, and for other people. Last thing at night, he’d leave his carefully calligraphed list on the kitchen bench for the next day. When we grew older and bolder, we used to surreptitiously edit them. “Buy trampoline.” “Trim nose hair.” “Swing by pound, pick up puppy.” We did it for a giggle, but there was a subtext: Have fun. Please remember to have fun! Yeah, there’s always stuff to do, but remember to stop and have a laugh.

Note to self: put that on own list.

 

Hey, so. Given that we aren’t the only ones in our position – indeed, it seems a wave of godwits is heading south, as if our collective homing beacons have all suddenly gone off -- I welcome your collective wisdom and experience. Logistical, spiritual, frivolous, serious. What would you add to the to-do list of a homeward-bound family that’s counting down the weeks? How have you packed up, moved on, settled back in? Any tricks for the phase transition, especially for children? And, if not a cure for timesickness itself, perhaps a happy spell or two to calm the mind?

82

What was lost

This morning, my older son said “Hey, Jojo! Watch this!” as he playfully piloted a plane into the ground, on his computer, for no reason, just for fun. Completely out of the blue.

I burst into tears. Not completely out of the blue. He had no idea why.

It does my head in: he’s a very well-informed little pitcher with exceptionally big ears, but he’s made it to the age of nine and a half without knowing the full facts of that day.

This is my theory about the long delay in Obama’s speech last night: that he was giving the parents of America a break, letting them get their children to bed (at least as far as California). That way, the parents would have time to think about how to explain, all over again, what had happened on that gorgeous autumn day -- a gift of a day, warmer than it should have been, calm, beautiful, a deep blue sky -- ten years ago, when those children were just babies.

I was living in the moment, hauling my very pregnant self around the neighbourhood, drinking it all in as the clock ticked away my last days of independence. New York Fuckin’ City: it’s a beautiful place, especially in the seasons of change -- spring, autumn --when you don’t have to think about being too hot or too cold, but can just float through the gentle, fizzy, balmy air, and relish living in Metropolis.

The city of the world, in America but not quite of America, the place where those fresh off the boat somehow manage to stay fresh, even on the ground, and there's always room for one more.  When you live there, it feels like the beating heart of the whole world.  No coincidence that it’s home to the United Nations: at street level, it is the united nations. That’s the city my older child was born in, and the nation he was born into.

Who are the people in your neighbourhood? The people that you greet when you’re walking down the street? Before this child could even speak, he knew to wave hello to the Jamaican doorman, the Native American super, the Indian lady in the newspaper kiosk, the Brazilian babysitter, the Egyptian guy in the magazine shop, the Afghan ex-Air Force officer who ran the kebab stand. In New York, everyone's from somewhere, even the ones born right here; his best baby friends were British-Greek-American, biracial White-and-African-American, Pakistani-Jewish-White-American.

People sometimes raise their eyebrows at the hyphenated juggernaut of a surname he shares with his brother -- a compromise between two small dynasties both proud of their names -- but to me, it's the most goddam American thing about them.

Before the baby was born, but after that beautiful day was smashed to pieces, his grandmother died.

She loved New York, lived there herself as an NZBC correspondent in the 1950s, and had a great fund of colourful stories about garrulous cops and dubious television producers. She loved that we were living in the city,  and lived for our stories and photos of where we’d been and what we’d seen, retracing some of her footsteps.

She’d not been well for a while, but the shock of the attack seemed to precipitate a sudden decline, and then she was gone. Because we didn’t know if there’d be a second attack using planes or one that would close the airports, my partner couldn’t fly home to be at her bedside, or even for the funeral. With me within weeks of giving birth, it was too much to risk.

That’s one small thing we would want to hold Osama bin Laden responsible for, but we’d be a long way down the queue. I’d also indict him for the thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees, and the several extra years it took to eventually process the Green Card applications that should have been done by that Christmas, but again, we’d be a long way down the queue.  Everyone lost something that day, individually or collectively.

 

What’s grieving me most this morning is that collective loss. The memory of those weeks and months after the attacks but before the wars is something I’ve suppressed so hard I’d almost forgotten what it felt like.

I can only speak for the vibe in New York, and for the part of it I encountered. But what I remember from those days immediately after the attack is – not trauma, not fear, not fury, although those certainly underlay the city’s mood. But the warm flesh on that frame was a sadness, a patience, a compassion, a depth of conviction that this thing that had happened must not be allowed to stand. That it must not be allowed to overwrite the mood, the meaning, the modus vivendi of the City.

That week, we gathered at the university and sheepishly, sadly, stood next to people with candles, singing “This Little Light of Mine.”

[Candlelight vigil at Columbia, 11 September 2001]

[Union Square, later that same week]

A year and a bit later, we put the fat little toddler in his stroller and marched down Broadway with hundreds of thousands of people against the impending invasion of Iraq, chanting “Not In Our Name.”  Together we testified that no matter how great the hole in the heart of this city, you couldn’t fix it by hurting more people.  (Although, after reading the stories of people on the planes with their children, I would have hurt that man, if you’d held him still for me. I would have.)

[NYC, 23 March 2003]

Look, we weren’t politically naïve. We knew that what had happened was part of a larger narrative, one that had begun a long time before, and would continue after we were no longer around to tell it. We knew that our horror and despair mirrored that felt by the victims of violence in other places, carried out in the name of other nations including this one that we lived in. Some of us knew that from experience.

But we thought that, by acting loudly enough, all together at the same time, we could wrest the controls away from the bloodthirsty, cockamamie fools at the helm who seemed compelled to divebomb this thing, this death-drive, into the heart of yet another nation. The passengers on Flight 93 managed to intervene; why couldn’t the hundreds of thousands of people who marched, gathered, spoke, wrote – not just in New York but across the country?

That’s where my stumbling, inarticulate grief is coming from this morning. It’s been ten years of bullying from the top. Ten years of official policy increasingly designed to squash that generous, democratic, mutually supportive impulse. A decade of ever-increasing paranoia and withdrawal and pain, in the place of that first gathering of light and voice and hope. A decade of collective emotional shuttering, political atrophy, an agreement not to talk about it.

I’m sad, and furious, that my child born of that moment – along with his friends and peers, some of whom experience it way more personally on account of affiliation or appearance -- has spent his entire young life in the shadow of both the inhumane act and the official response.

The pinched distrust, the humourless eternal surveillance. Every flight he’s taken, every x-rayed teddy-bear, every stupid argument about taking off his shoes at the security gate, the time his little brother was pulled aside for extra screening, the time I was obliged to hand over a crying infant and submit to a hands-on patdown. In five years’ time he’ll be as old as the youngest prisoner was when rounded up for internment at Guantanamo. It’s a travesty. It’s a tragedy.

So, I told him the short version this morning. He knew the buildings fell down. Now he knows how, and that there were four planes, and two other crash sites, and that some people were braver than you’d imagine it possible to be under such circumstances.

He knew the country is in the middle of two wars, collectively longer than both World Wars; now he knows why, even though there’s no easy explanation that quite makes sense to his ears, or to mine.  He knew that some of our friends are in the armed forces, others were rescue workers; now he knows where, and has an inkling of why they’re not so keen on loud noises, long flights, and burning smells.

The one thing I can’t explain properly is how the personality of this place has changed over the last ten years -- not when it’s all he’s ever known. Nor can I explain why it’s going to be partly his and his brother’s job to try and change it back, even though it wasn’t their fault. Some things are just unfair.

A bad man is dead. Ten years of suspended animation, ten years of sleepwalking towards the future. What next?  

Amid the legitimate, involuntary catharsis – ten years, ten years! -- and the strange eruptions of what looks like unseemly joy, I hope for a reemergence of whatever spirit it was that took us to the streets those early days, weeks, months in New York.  A spirit of humility, and shared humanity, and hope, and an expectation of having a voice in what happens next.

We can’t get back everything that was lost, but I want that part of it, at least.

--

Images below by Gemma Gracewood, taken in lower Manhattan, 2 May 2011