Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

29

The art of seismography

Seismography, n. 1. the science of detecting, measuring and recording ground vibrations, especially those from earthquakes.

True enough, but I'd like to propose a new sub-definition:

2. writing about earthquakes and their aftermath.

Even as the Canterbury earthquake slowly recedes from the front pages, there is some seriously excellent writing coming from the front lines. Here are a few must-reads, besides of course our own redoubtable Emma and David:

Harvestbird meditates exquisitely on How To Be Brave.

Cheryl Bernstein delves into the bittersweet Aesthetics of Earthquakes and shares Dispatches from an Earthquake Zone.

Moata Tamaira manifests an enviable sense of humour about the whole darn thing.

13 Things Mike Dickison Learned From an Earthquake, and his Aftershock Diary.

Adrienne Rewi always has amazing combinations of words and images, never more so than now.

Matthew Walker recounts the day of the earthquake, with photos.

Kalena's First Three Tweets project is a veritable haikai no renga of initial reactions.

For the scientific perspective, Dr Mark Quigley is the seismological ne plus ultra.

See also this discussion of the tectonics at Highly Allochthonous (great name! I am highly allochthonous too).

James Dann's Rebuilding Christchurch does exactly what it says on the box: "one brick, one word, one city" at a time.

--

Who am I missing? Please send any related links, and I'll fold them into this post.

--

If it's meta-critical writing about writing about earthquakes you're after, you'll have already noted Russell's report on the first reports from NZ and elsewhere. Philip Matthews follows up with a reflection on how -- and where, and why -- the news unfolded on the day: "Quake a Virtual Reality".

One of the upshots: we are all in the public domain now!

--

Lastly, for the tiniest taste of how abrupt and upsetting the continuous, random aftershocks can be, see this security-cam footage of the staff of C1 Espresso sussing out the shop (link courtesy of Cheryl Bernstein).

The jolt happens at about 1:08 -- now imagine how it must feel not to know that in advance.

496

The shakes

Three hours ago, I was just about to hit “publish” on a frivolous blog post when the lateral fault under Christchurch groaned into life, rendering everything else a bit beside the point.

I am hoping that PA’s South Island correspondents will chime in once they’ve made sure everyone is in one piece and had a chance to have a cup of tea with LOTS OF BRANDY IN IT. Or if the power is still out and there's no camping stove to hand, just start with the brandy. (It's what my dear old Christchurch-raised Nana would have done).

Watching the news roll in, via a flock of tremulous tweets, was uncanny. Once again, bite-sized reports from wired citizens were running around the world before the mainstream media had even got its boots on.

Thankfully, and barring any late developments, it seems the major damage is to property. Nerves too, of course.

And also possibly to the Cantabrian reputation for civic order, if the rumours of looting are to be believed. Looting? Surely they mean luting. This is Christchurch we’re talking about.

Amid the early uncertainty, I found myself having a wee Arthur Dent moment.

…every being in the universe is tied to his birthplace by tiny invisible force tendrils composed of little quantum packets of guilt. If you travel far from your birthplace, these tendrils get stretched and distorted. This compares with an ancient Arcturan Proverb “However fast the body travels, the soul travels at the speed of an Arcturan Mega-Camel.”

This would mean, in these days of hyperspace and Improbability Drive, that most people’s souls are wandering unprotected in deep space in a state of some confusion; and this would account for a lot of things.

Similarly, if your birthplace is actually destroyed, or in Arthur Dent’s case demolished - ostensibly to make way for a new hyperspace bypass - then these tendrils are severed and flap about at random. There are no people to be fed or whales to be saved; there is no washing up to be done. And these flapping tendrils of guilt can seriously disturb the space-time continuum.

Yes, flapping tendrils of guilt and memory and concern, waving about all over the place. I didn’t grow up in Christchurch, but I did a lot of growing up there. At varsity, my geologist friend Steven always said to forget Wellington, that Christchurch would be next. This was a good two decades ago, but it turns out he was right, and our tipsy scoffing at his undergrad seismic "expertise" was wrong.

Thing is, I learned earthquake drills at kindy in the Hutt Valley, forgot them in Auckland, joked about them in Christchurch, and then moved to Tokyo -- where I was grateful for that early pragmatic training in instant response.

In Tokyo, I had cause to brace myself under a sturdy steel desk a couple of times. One huge shake happened just after midnight. The next day I asked my ten-year-old students if it had woken them. “Woke us? Nah!” But it had interrupted their Nintendo and their homework.

The local wisdom was that if you felt the room rocking from side to side, you should fit yourself in a doorway or under a sturdy piece of furniture, and just go with the sway until it stopped. If, on the other hand, you felt the floor moving upwards underneath you, you should reflect on what a nice life you had had up to that point, and hastily make your peace with your deity, or lack thereof.

It was also said that after the Big One, the city would be full of disoriented Tokyo-ites making their way home along the train lines, as that was the only way most of them knew the city and its directions. This I found a strangely moving testimony to the force of habit, and the power of a good public transport system.

After acclimatising to living in a massive city on a massive faultline, it was rather terrifying to land in London and see all those chimney pots, precariously poised like certain death over the heads of the unconcerned citizens wandering the streets in happy ignorance of the impending Blitz overhead. One half-decent shudder and it would have been good night, Mary Poppins. It took me some time to abandon the anxious habit of constantly scanning for where one might hide if the earth abruptly started moving.

And now after a decade and a half in New England, I have completely unlearned the trick of standing upright. People just do it, here; there’s no wobble, ergo, no trick.

It’s not that there haven’t been a number of random civil emergencies of one sort or another while we’ve been living here. I know how to duct-tape the windows shut, where to get Cipro, why to avoid Times Square. But the ground beneath my feet, compacted by a mile-high glacier during the last ice age, is unnaturally firm.

That’s a good thing, right? Then why does it feel so bloody precarious?

--

Those of you in earthquakey zones (g'morning, Wellington) are presumably revising your survival kits and emergency plans. The rest of us, how can we help, and what should we do?

Kia kaha, Otautahi. Stand firm, albeit wobbly-kneed.

138

A Thought Went Up My Mind To-day

I don’t know why this page hasn’t been updated in so long. Obviously some technical glitch in the brain-machine interface, as I’ve been blogging like mad the whole time. You know, the usual chattering stream of perfectly formed consciousness -- limpid, crystalline and deeply musical as it burbles across the jewel-like pebbles in the shallows of my brain, eddying gracefully into fully-formed paragraphs of exceptional intelligence and wit.

I just… keep forgetting to write any of it down.

Bumper sticker version: introverts do it all by themselves. You’re never alone with that inner voice, are you? Except when you realise that none of it was recorded and is therefore all lost down the plughole of history. Oh, the loneliness of the long-distance blogger!

Note to self: write it down.

Especially after spending the last couple of months time-travelling with a couple of top-class oddball 19th C graphomaniacs who shunned and derided company but helplessly, compulsively poured out their infinite thoughts on the page. What they left behind is the next best thing to a Tardis, I tell you.

I will introduce you to the marvellously verbose Victorian New Zealander next time, but first: the spectral madwoman in America’s attic, Emily Dickinson.

--

I’d met the Myth of Amherst briefly in grad school, when a friend helpfully noted that pretty much every poem Emily Dickinson wrote can be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas. (That’s one of those earworms that dies outside its host, which is why I had to pass it on without warning you first. Sorry).

I knew a handful of her poems. Not really my thing, but intriguing nonetheless: gloomy flashes of terrifying insight delivered in neat symmetrical lines studded with Capitalised Nouns -- and -- strange -- Punctuation. Form by Hallmark, content by Post Secret. Like Whitman, she sings the body electric, but in Morse Code rather than opera.

I’d agreed to review Lyndall Gordon’s fascinating new book, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feuds, in the hope of learning more about the poet, who after all, is practically a neighbour.

It took me a while to warm up to Gordon's slightly fey prose style, but by the end I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. Luckily for the author, this story has everything: feisty schoolgirls, psychological warfare, courtroom battles, group sex, late-in-life lust, early death and various degrees of mental instability, plus academic brouhahas and small-town gossip. Also, a medical bombshell, in the form of Gordon’s contentious but well-argued new theory about Emily’s physical ills and her reclusive ways.

As part of my famously comprehensive review process, I skimmed the other biographies and read as much of the poetry as I could manage. Emily, soul-sister! Stranded in small-town New England, conducting most of her business with the world via fierce and zippy correspondence… She'd have been a terrific emailer, and an even better Tweeter.

And then I dragged the family along on an expedition to Amherst, since it’s just an hour up the road from New Haven.

The review should appear in the Listener in the next week or two. For a big book, my review is short, because 600 words is how New Zealand rolls. (Oh, for longer and more challenging book reviews -- hello, new Metro? James Longenbach’s contemplative take in the Nation is a fine example of what you can do with more than a regulation page-with-photo). In the meantime, here's the travelogue version, director's cut.

--

The trick to taking literary field trips with the junior crowd is to make it an over-nighter, and to make sure the cheapo hotel you stay in comes with a swimming pool. We found one on the outskirts of Springfield.

The other trick is food. After working up an appetite in the pool, we took ourselves out to dinner at a quaint local-ish institution called the Red Robin Burger, in a quaint local strip mall, next to a quaint local Barnes and Noble.

Ah, New England. So traditional, so bucolic. The barn-like food barn was full of people mooing contentedly over their industrial-strength (and industrial-quality, and industrial quantity) “food”, and we gladly took our place in the chute. I mean, queue.

We were greeted, cheerfully, by a cheerful worker sporting the company badge that listed the exceedingly cheerful Red Robin code:
Honor
Integrity
Seeking Knowledge
Having Fun!

We were also greeted by a faux verdigris Statue of Liberty, holding aloft a burger haloed in neon, and standing next to a banner advertising the current special… Banzai Burgers.

It’s like Pearl Harbor never happened. We were definitely having fun already!

While waiting for a table, the 8 year old read his book, and the 4 year old waved at people in the nearby booths. The bible study group -- praise the Lord and pass the ketchup -- smiled back. So did a teenager at the next table, but his older companion leaned across, beckoned my boy closer, and growled, with a Cheney-like grimace, “Go away, little boy. I didn’t come here to be your play-date.”

Well, nor he you, Dick; but cheers, anyway.

We left the Roald Dahl character to his conversation, which consisted of boring for New England on the subject of basement waterproofing. I’d have felt bad if we’d been interrupting something special, like an adoption reunion or a father-son sex talk. So I didn’t feel bad. Later, when another customer was treated to the special Red Robin birthday chant with coordinated rhythmic clapping, we considered confiding to the waitress that Mr Grump was turning 100, but alas, he had already gone home to check on his basement situation.

--

The Soul selects her own Society - / then - shuts the Door -

Emily Dickinson, on the other hand, didn’t revile children. Neighbourhood children used to play pirate games in the wooded lot next to her house, and, according to our guide at the Dickinson house, when they stood under Emily’s window calling “Booty, booty!” she would lower baskets of her home-made gingerbread.

She also had a very soft spot for her nephew Gib, who sounds like one of those precocious young wits that you either love or hate. “Dear Santy Clause,” goes one of his surviving letters, “Please bring me whatever you think best. I don’t mean a spanking I mean some common place toys.” Naturally, she loved him.

The houses of famous dead writers are haunted, but artificially so. There are photographs, sample pages of manuscripts, carefully displayed dioramas of their remaining furniture and, usually, a writing desk staged as if the writer has just stepped away for a moment.

The houses of famous dead women writers are doubly artificially haunted, because there’s always a hovering dress in the picture. Like Charlotte Bronte’s impossibly tiny dress at Haworth, Emily’s plain pin-tucked dress, white cotton trimmed discreetly in broderie anglaise, floats in a glass box at the Dickinson house (Charlotte’s is original, Emily’s a reproduction).

It’s as if we can’t grasp these dames except via their frocks. The important thing about Emily’s frock: pockets. A compulsive graphomane, she always had to have pencil and paper on hand to capture her firefly thoughts. Any old paper. Her astonishing poems, diamond-studded nutshells of insight, singular as the flowers she cultivated in her greenhouse, were written on scraps of paper and cardboard, on the backs of shopping lists and letters, in one case on the inside of a chocolate wrapper.

There are 1,775 known poems, mostly written in the 1860s; in 1862 she cranked out at least a poem a day. Only a tiny handful were published in her lifetime; the rest stuffed into drawers, a few given away, some of them bound by the poet or her friend into small booklets.

The Dickinson Homestead was used by Amherst College as faculty housing until 2002, so most trace of the family’s residence there is gone. It’s scrubbed clean, a blank white page, with strategically arranged artifacts in glass cases, a few pieces of furniture, and pictures on the walls. In Emily’s room, the bed is hers but the minuscule desk where she scribbled her poems is a reproduction. The original is safely in a museum at Harvard, which would have horrified her grandfather, who established Amherst College partly as a godly alternative to worldly Harvard.

Emily’s room is not the garret you might imagine, but a four-square and sunny space, with two windows that look down onto the main street of Amherst, and two onto the side yard and across to the Evergreens, the house in which her brother lived with Susan, his wife (and Emily’s friend, constant reader, and perhaps soul-mate). Emily lived in the homestead with her parents and her unmarried sister Lavinia.

Susan threw parties, Austin planted trees, and they raised three children; Emily wrote poems and Lavinia pottered about. All was relatively neighbourly until, in his 50s, Austin tumbled headlong into a passionate affair with a new girl in town, the beguiling Mabel Loomis Todd.

Mabel was a twenty-something faculty wife with city manners, feminist principles, and literary aspirations; also a philandering voyeur of a husband – the astronomy professor at Amherst – and far too much time on her hands. She was eager to broker an acquaintance with the reclusive poet, or failing that, her siblings.

The story of Mabel and Austin’s relationship has been told before, and their steamy letters (including those in which Mabel sweetly wishes Susan would hurry up and die) have been published, but Gordon brings it to life in full Days of Our Lives colour. Part of her task is the rehabilitation of Susan, whose reputation was persuasively and systematically trashed by Mabel in her self-appointed role as Emily Dickinson’s posthumous editor, biographer, and champion.

The astonishing thing is, Mabel never met Emily, who refused any dealings with her. With Lavinia’s knowledge but against Emily’s wishes, Austin and Mabel enjoyed lunchtime assignations in the homestead (also, occasionally, off-site and with other people -- oh, those Victorians!). In particular, they canoodled in the library, which was downstairs and diagonally across from the poet’s bedroom. The homestead is a solidly built house and fairly soundproof, so it’s entirely possible to “entertain” downstairs without disturbing anyone upstairs. But Emily cannot have been unaware, and it seems clear that the Irish maid, Margaret Maher, kept her informed.

(By the way, Aife Murray has written a fascinating book about the Dickinson servants, a nice companion volume to Alison Light's book about Virginia Woolf and her servants).

It is also Margaret we have to thank for the single surviving daguerrotype of Emily, taken when she was seventeen. The family threw it out, thinking it unflattering, but Maggie saved it, without which we’d only know the poet through a childhood portrait. (Another possible image surfaced in 2000 on eBay, but has never been authenticated; the intriguing story is told here).

--

If it’s a truly haunted house you’re looking for, stroll across the yard - as Emily often did, when she was still visiting Susan, before the almost total seclusion of the last ten years of her life -- to the Evergreens.

The Evergreens must have been gorgeous when first built for the newly-wed Austin and Susan: light and airy and decorated in golden wood trim and pale sprigged wallpaper. In 1877, Susan gave the house an Eastlake makeover, transforming it into what we think of when we think of Victorian décor: gloomy, atmospheric, all blood red and dark wood, crowded and cluttered with art and furniture.

Susan died in 1913; her daughter Martha lived there alone till 1923, when she was joined by the young Alfred Hampson as her secretary. After Martha died in 1943, Hampson continued to maintain the house until his death in 1953; his widow Mary lived on in the house till 1988, determined to save it from the terms of Martha’s will, which stipulated that if the house was ever sold, it must be torn down. Fortunately a trust was established, and the Evergreens was eventually folded into the Emily Dickinson Museum.

Restoration is being gingerly undertaken, but as it stands today, the Evergreens is virtually unchanged since Susan presided over the slow death of her marriage in the late 1800s. The interior is sturdy but decrepit: crumbling plaster, torn wallpaper with dark patches where pictures once hung, smoke-blackened ceilings overhead, dangerously frayed rugs underfoot. The piano room where gregarious Susan held parties is crammed with Victoriana. Enormous oil paintings in gilt frames, elaborate sconces, marble statues, heavy dark furniture with clawed feet, a massive mirror over the mantel.

The kitchen, which is in the original 1700s part of the house to which the “new” house was added in 1855, is a revelation. With the original wide wooden floorboards, it is also the only truly modernized part of the house: the black iron Crawford range from 1904 stands next to a gleaming white 1950s stove, and a white cast iron 50s sink with draining board has been installed, adjacent to a cool-room with a slate floor and a dry sink.

Upstairs, you find the servants’ rooms, and the most genuinely haunted part of the experience: the bedroom of Gilbert, known as Gib -- Austin and Susan’s late-in-life child, born when his parents were in their mid-40s.

His homework lies on the desk, his clothes on the bed; the room has stood untouched since October 1883, when Gib died suddenly, from typhoid fever, at the age of 8. His devastated aunt made a rare visit to sit by his sickbed, and thereafter, until her death three years later, she never left the homestead.

(Photography is forbidden, but there are some photos of the Evergreens here, and another visitor describes her experience here).

Poor dead Gib. We were all a bit quiet as we walked back to the main house. I remembered the trip to Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, also a shrine to a dead child, after which our older child, then three, had wailed “I don’t want to die and people put our things into a museum!”

Back at the homestead, I looked for the conservatory Emily’s father had built for her adjacent to the library (I am mad for greenhouses, as was she) but it’s gone, as if it never existed.

The dining room is now a gift shop, where I bought a replica edition of the book Emily’s father gave her mother when they married: The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who are Not Ashamed of Economy (1833), by Mrs Child (Author of "Hobomok," "The Mother's Book," Editor of the "Juvenile Miscellany," &c).

The book has recipes -- including three for gingerbread, which I will try if I can get my hands on some pearlash -- and handy household hints. Never clean your andirons with vinegar. Wash your hair in good New England rum. Huckleberries are just the ticket for constipated children.

On the matter of children, Mrs Child recommends that you put them to good use, starting now:

In this country, we are apt to let children romp away their existence, till they get to be thirteen or fourteen. This is not well. It is not well for the purses and patience of parents; and it has a still worse effect on the morals and habits of the children. Begin early is the great maxim for everything in education. A child of six years old can be made useful; and should be taught to consider every day lost in which some little thing has not been done to assist others.

So we romped in the garden for a bit, piratically, and then the children assisted us to find somewhere good for lunch. A nice Chinese place three blocks away, further than Emily Dickinson walked in all the years she was writing her most enduring poems.


A Thought went up my mind to-day

That I have had before,

But did not finish, -- some way back,

I could not fix the Year,





Nor where it went, nor why it came

The second time to me,

Nor definitely what it was,

Have I the Art to say.



But somewhere in my Soul, I know

I've met the Thing before;

It just reminded me -- 't was all --

And came my way no more.

45

All in the game

What’s that smouldering, sulphurous smell? No, not mischievous Eyjafjallajökull, doing for air travel what Lady Gaga has done for the underpants industry. I'm talking about something closer to home. Ah yes: it’s just the literary world singeing its skirts on the limelight again. Flaming trousers, knickers in a twist, scoops, scandals, feuds and frauds… I say! It’s almost as if literature matters.

I have mixed feelings when bookish types hit the entertainment pages. Is it a welcome boost for a dying medium – after reality TV, reality books (or, as we used to call it, non-fiction)! Or is it a useful reminder that reports of the death of the author have been wildly exaggerated, and were never countenanced by the marketing department anyway? Or is it yet another sign of the apocalypse?

--

Sometimes it’s just damned fine reporting. Last week, Matt Nippert managed a nifty scoop while profiling a new book by a US author that hinges on a supposedly true story about a chap whose wife and children were kidnapped by Maori in the mid 19th C. Something didn’t smell right about the inspiration for the novel, and Matt cleverly tracked the story down to its surprising source. An admiring Watson to his Holmes, I insist you read it.

I was happy to contribute this thought to the article: "It doesn't really matter whether the inspiration comes from real life or from an urban legend ... What matters is that the author transforms it into an original, persuasive and affecting work of fiction." But the best and last word went to Bill Manhire: “All the good stories are too good to check.” True dat.

--

I might have been more nuanced in my comment if, when I spoke to Matt, I’d already assimilated the brewing Stead-Cox brouhaha. Which has turned out to be more brou than haha.

My first thought (and indeed tweet) when I heard that C. K. Stead had won the world’s most generous short story prize was that he had probably broken the local record for dollars-per-word obtained in the pursuit of literary glory. By my rough calculation, about NZD$7.50/word, which is nice work if you can get it. He sure got it. Stead is on the money when he suggests that there's a measure of envy in the flutter that followed; I doubt we'd be as avidly interested if the story had won a book token and a year's subscription to the Times.

I didn’t think much more, other than to wonder who the other finalists had been. You can see the long list here, which included Helen Simpson’s terrifyingly funny "Diary of an Interesting Year". The final shortlist of six featured five blokes, as it happened; an interesting contrast to the formerly most generous short story award in the world, the BBC National Short Story Award, whose finalists last year were all women.

Then Stephen Stratford, editor of the defunct -- but dead funky -- literary mag Quote Unquote, linked the Stead story to its apparent biographical inspiration -- a historical grudge match with the late Nigel Cox, who wrote a disappointed mid-career assessment of Stead in 1994 -- and suddenly it was ON.

Stephen followed up in several interesting posts. And the Sunday Star-Times picked up the story.

I realize I’m late to this tea party, but it turns out to be one of those tea parties that orders a pizza and some beers and calls some mates, and rumbles on well past the point where Noise Control show up. The story has not just legs, but (thanks to its international origin) wings, with the latest round appearing in Private Eye and the Guardian.

At which point the Sunday Star-Times trawled its drift-net across the blogosphere again, and went back to Stead for further comment. He boldly fired off a few rounds at Stratford and also at Keri Hulme, insisted that the parallels between life and fiction are "not obvious" to him, and eschewed all "moral responsibility for mistakes that other people make in reading [his] work."

It would be nice to take Stead at his word -- except that there isn’t a single word, but several. On the one hand, Stead insists the story is not in any way about Cox. On the other, he tells the Sunday Times: "The reason I set this story in Croatia, rather than in New Zealand, was because everybody would have tried to work out who the characters were, and I didn’t want that."

These are not mutually exclusive statements, by any means: try setting any story in New Zealand and see how long it takes someone to start guessing who’s who, even or especially if they’re not. I’m still fruitlessly trying to figure out, for example, which of the contemporary Girl’s Own Show DJs – uniformly smart, sexy, and skinny - was the inspiration for the fat, sweaty, bossy lesbians who run a similar show on campus radio in a novel by one of our acclaimed young writers. Because authors don't just conjure characters out of thin air, do they? Or order them from catalogues of clichés?

And on the third hand, there’s the story about the Janet Frame story, mentioned by Fergus Barrowman in the comments here. This historical anecdote leaves our author looking a little bit like a one-legged man in a boot-on-the-other-foot contest. As a legendarily careful and close reader, he would recognise the irony.

Irony - or just common-or-gardeny. Writers, like most of us, are paper-skinned beasts who persist in the delusion that everyone else is a pachyderm. That familiar author-photo pose, gazing intelligently into the middle distance with chin in hand? Is really just the writer carefully shielding a glass jaw with their iron fist.

There’s a fashionable quote from Czeslaw Milosz, most often deployed as a pre-emptive excuse: “When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished.” Duck and cover, friends and relations! But it’s also fashionable to argue that a nation is a kind of family, and without a literature, a nation hasn’t even gotten started. Turns out you can’t make a truly tasty omelette without giving Humpty Dumpty a bit of a bruising, and as the literature tells us, it's awfully hard to put that together again.

Where do stories come from? I think the more interesting question is, having come from there, where do they go? At my house, we have an art cupboard for the kids, the bottom shelf of which is devoted to “inspiration.” Curiously shaped bits of packing cardboard, egg boxes, broken kitchen tools, a disemboweled clock, the old egg beater, contact lens containers, rainbow coloured string, cotton wool, cellophane. Out of these raw materials, the boys make objects - a Viking ship, a remote control robot, a hovering battleship - that utterly transcend their origins.

Croatian backdrop aside, Stead’s scenario hews closely enough to the known world to feel a little too personal. Certainly Cox’s widow and friends legitimately felt so; they can still see the parts from the art cupboard for what they are, which makes it hard to see the whole for what it is. And even if, like me, you didn't know the back story, once it's pointed out, the front story rather loses its gloss.

Would it have been kinder for Stead to knead the germ of inspiration into the dough of the story a little more industriously? Absolutely. And, given that guessing games are irresistible and unavoidable in stories about authors, by authors, it would definitely have been more sportsmanlike to bury the likenesses under a few more layers of costume.

It might even have made for a more complicated story. Two rival women writers, say, and a bereaved husband ripe for the wooing -- a gender flip would neatly have obviated Private Eye's wicked comment that the story read like "one of Jeffrey Archer's cast-offs". Or you could take it out of the artsy realm altogether: a couple of muscular Olympians battling for the gold, and the grieving boyfriend of one of them? Now, that would certainly have been a little less luvvie and a lot more saucy.

Stead argues that the story is purely fiction. As novelist-poet-critic, he’s professionally entitled to that opinion. But it's hard to believe the man whose job it is to notice every single word didn’t permit himself a tiny smile as he typed this sentence:

Steadily, as peace returned, Mario re-established himself in the theatre, and was reinstated to his old place of respect and, gradually, of dominance.

That’s a £25,000 adverb right there.

--

Perhaps it will all be sorted out in the great boozy book launch of the hereafter, which is bound to be, to quote the immortal Douglas Adams, not so much an afterlife, more a sort of an après-vie.

But then again, what could be more dull than a civilized post-everything handshake over cocktails and canapés. As a character in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia puts it, contemplating the prospect of a “great celestial get-together for an exchange of views”: “If the answers are in the back of the book, I can wait, but what a drag.”

--

When you’re tossed out of the bar for brawling, there’s only one place to take it: to the street. By which I mean the Amazon review pages. If possible, have your spouse do it. (A busy week for the Times, to be sure, which broke the story). And when your spouse has finished tearing strips off your rivals, perhaps they can have a go at Fisher and Paykel, too.

--

She doesn't need the money, and freely admits it, but if there were a prize for best literary use of a true story, I’d give it this month to J.K. Rowling, for her blistering op-ed on the British Conservative Party’s risible social welfare proposals. Entitled "A Single Mother’s Manifesto", it's a veritable Avada Kedavra of a missive. Am I the only one who wanted to print this out, roll it up, and deliver it to our own Minister of Social Development and Employment?

130

Testing, 1 2 3

Hey, I know: let’s assume that the National Standards are a benevolent, well-meaning intervention, earnestly dedicated to closing a vast and unforgivably race- and income-based gap in educational outcomes. I know, it doesn’t come naturally. But try this: read the press release and globally substitute “health” for “education.” For reading, writing, and maths, think height, weight, and, say, healthy body temperature.

Why look, there are even nifty Plunket-style graphs to lend weight to my imperfect but bear-with-me analogy. And unlike overseas, where the numbers are generally anonymized into a snapshot of how the school is succeeding, this new data, like a Plunket book, will be tailored to your individual child, showing how they succeed or fail at adhering to a weighted average on their way to a Brighter Future (TM). They're even weaseling carefully on the question of whether by "testing" they mean actual tests, or just, y'know, not tests, not really, certainly not national ones based on, ooh, standards or anything. Perfectly harmless, perfectly well-meaning.

But, you object, haven't we already been weighing this particular baby for decades now? We know when it’s bonny, when it's sickly, and we have a hunch that fixing the latter will require supplements of some sort. We also have plenty of data from local sources, not to mention tons of useful feedback from the struggling UK and US experiments in numbers-driven educational reform on how not to do this measuring thing. So, why? Why on earth invest precious dollars in yet another nifty set of I-speak-your-fate scales, now with wi-fi and real-time digital readouts?

Oh go on. Roll up, roll up, children, and let’s be measuring you. Say aaaah. It’s painless, and the information is incredibly useful. What could possibly go wrong?

Really now: what’s the worst that could happen?

--

Let me tell you some tales out of school.

Towards the end of his second year of public school in the US, our then 6 year old skipped two weeks of school to travel to New Zealand. One day we were visiting my brother, who lives over the back fence from a primary school. Picture my son jumping on the trampoline (a novelty: they’re virtually verboten over here, due to most home-owner insurance policies) and having a look over the fence at what a New Zealand school looks like.

It was noon. The children poured out onto the playing field and started, well, playing. They sat on benches, under the trees, out on the grass, eating their sandwiches and generally romping about.

Forty-five minutes later they were still out there, frolicking and chatting, and my puzzled child, still bouncing and ogling the charming Brueghel-esque scene over the back fence, asked what on earth they were doing.

“Lunchtime, what else?” I asked.

He thought he was witnessing the longest and most disorganized fire-drill ever seen.

--

Of course he was no stranger to the concept of recess, but at his school it was a maximum of twenty minutes long and took place at the teacher’s discretion. In his first two years of school, this was officially every day, albeit dependent on weather -- and behaviour. If the children played up, they missed out.

This behavioural bar applied to classwork as well. One day I picked him up in tears: he had had to sit out the art lesson, he explained, because he hadn’t finished his maths in time. (He was just five years old, had started school a month before his fifth birthday). His “maths” consisted of writing the numbers from 1 to 100.

This is a child who could count to a hundred on his 4th birthday, and was used to performing complicated sums in his head. He had refused to finish the task, he said, because it was so boring that his brain hurt. His teacher, a kind and intelligent person, said she had tried everything she could think of to get him to just finish the job, but only withdrawing his participation in art class had gotten his attention.

Of course it did. He loved the art teacher, and they were in the middle of a fairly complex (for five year olds) art project, with multiple stages. This was the day they were meant to finish it.

I was stunned that a piece of math-work so mindlessly trivial could not only become a bone of pointless contention between a teacher and a five year old (admittedly part mule), but could also trump another part of the curriculum. Surely the task, if necessary, could be completed at home? Was it even necessary?

Oh yes, it was. It was necessary for the “portfolio.” Vague explanations were given about the weight that would be placed on showing that this particular accomplishment had been ticked off, and the dire consequences if a child failed to complete the task. Besides, there was already homework to be done: every night a page or two of random letter-practice, or a colouring exercise, or a small piece of math, usually printed from an online source, rarely connected to anything actually done in the classroom.

My child got excited about precisely one homework assignment that first year, which involved drawing a plant. He sat out in the garden and drew a tulip, making a cross-section that showed the underground part, and then a cunning flap that showed what we actually see. Every part of the flower was carefully labeled. I had never seen him so attentive to a school-related task at home. The rest of the time, homework was a slow-drip of torture for him.

This was a middling decile school, one we’d chosen from a list of magnet schools in the city because of its express philosophy of child-centred, inquiry-led learning. The school was home to children from an impressive cross-section of families, from newly arrived immigrants to doctors, managers and scientists. All of whom took education seriously, but with a vast range of means. It was part of what we liked about the place.

The school was surprisingy “crunchy” for a public school, at first glance. It featured mixed-age classrooms so that children could learn at their own pace, teachers were addressed by their first names, and each of the junior class teachers had a full-time aide to help. There were 22 children in the class, each of whom I came to know by name.

One child spoke little English, or, as the teacher’s aide put it in a not-very-whispered aside to my husband, complete with eye-roll: “He no speaka da English.” My son was very worried about this child, who had difficulty figuring out what was required of him. “Because he’s bilingual,” my child explained to me. What did that word mean, I asked, not having heard him use it before. “It means that his ears don’t work and he can’t really learn properly,” my child explained, sadly.

Little pitchers are fearsomely skilled at picking up the hidden curriculum, and it took me a while to convince my son that “bilingual” meant neither deaf nor dumb. What burned me up about this particular incident was that we had leaned towards this school partly on the recommendation of Belgian friends. Their children were also emphatically bilingual, but I doubt they were subject to the same implicit discounting of their intellectual abilities.

The hidden curriculum appeared in different guises. The classroom operated a “traffic-light” behavioural system. Each child’s name was on a clothes-peg attached to a cardboard sign. At the beginning of the day, everyone was on green. If you played up in any way, you moved to the orange light. If you made it to red, you missed out on “afternoon stations,” which was the free-play part of the day that happened after 2.

(In this respect, the school was extremely enlightened: children in the K-1 classrooms were encouraged to play with blocks, cars, paint, dress-up materials and so on, although even that was eventually curbed. The official ethos was mostly kind and encouraging, and my son never forgot the day he freaked out over the fire-drill, and spent an hour recovering in the office of the very sweet deputy principal, working on a soothing art project).

But when I arrived for pick-up in the afternoon, I would notice the same names on orange and red, day after day. No prizes for guessing the gender and race of these children. It seemed a terribly defeating, self-fulfilling prophecy rather than a useful crowd-control device. I mentioned what I’d noticed, and the traffic light was eventually discontinued, but not before a discussion in which it was explained that the ultimate goal was to help children learn to sit still during tests.

--

The school moved from its scruffy temporary digs to a smart new building, and at the opening ceremony, the head honcho of public schools gave a speech in which he described the children as “VIPs.” VIPs, he explained, study very hard and do well on their tests, and they do not (among other things) vandalize their nice new school building. Once again, the expectations were underwhelming and at odds with the stated ethos of the school.

This was the year the school instituted a yogic meditation moment each morning, conducted via the PA system. I thought it was sweet, and the kids enjoyed it. It turned out to be part of a scheme to settle the nerves of the children in the higher grades as they prepared for the tests.

Recess still happened nearly every day, but was more frequently withheld for raucous behaviour in the classroom, in direct violation of the laws of cause-and-effect. I was surprised to discover that recess was not guaranteed until 2005, when the state we live in passed a law mandating twenty minutes of free-range time per day for grades K-5 (which could also be fulfilled by a gym class, or by stand-up exercises in the classroom). It struck me that prisoners, casual workers, and zoo animals quite probably had more generous fresh-air provisions than children.

--

Officially, the state testing doesn’t start until 3rd grade (the fourth year of school, given that schooling in the US starts with what is called Kindergarten year), but thanks to the mixed-age system at this particular school, the effects were felt as soon as our child moved into the Grade 2-3 classroom.

Recess dropped to three times a week, although the teacher often sneaked a fourth bite of outside time. Questions about this drew two answers: one, that the children had gym on the other two days, so it was all right (leaving aside the question of how the gym teacher was meant to feel about this, or what this meant for children for whom recess was a mental proposition as much as a physical one). And secondly, that there simply wasn’t enough time in the school week to cover the curriculum AND have daily recess.

These were seven-year-olds.

Homework was the same drip-feed of photocopied worksheets, enlivened by a new exercise, in which a simplified weekly “newspaper” from Scholastic was handed out with a set of questions to be answered. These drove our child to new heights of anti-homework frenzy, particularly the open-ended written response question, which always took the form: “What was the most interesting thing you learned about [snow leopards, Barack Obama, fruit, charity-work, whatever the subject of the newspaper was].

Like George Washington, he could not tell a lie. Nine times out of ten, he learned nothing from the simplistic text, and nine times out of ten, he wrote “Nothing” and got a zero for his efforts. I had known that I would have to teach him the art of pointless hoop-jumping at some point in his life, but I had no idea it would arrive this soon. “Just make something up,” I would say, and he would ask “WHY????!!” and drive his pencil through the paper to make a point.

At the parent-teacher conferences, we asked if there was a way around this. Could we rephrase the question? Could he, perhaps, write the most interesting thing he already knew, or write a question that the newspaper didn’t answer but that he would love to know? Surely the point was to craft a well-written sentence on the subject at hand, and to extend his curiosity on the topic, whatever it was?

Apparently, no. The question was phrased this way, because it was the way it would be phrased in the tests, and it was important for children to get used to it. The material was irrelevant. It was style over substance, and the style was drillingly dull.

We asked a lot of questions that year. We became “those” parents. At every step along the way, in every one of these conversations, teachers and administrators – intelligent, well-educated, well-meaning people – explained things in terms of the tests. Not in terms of what was good for the children, or what worked as effective classroom management. It was all about the tests. A spectre was haunting the school, and it was the spectre of the tests.

And at every point, our perplexed observation that the tests seemed to be driving the curriculum, and that the horse might be happier pulling the cart, was categorically denied. We wanted to be good supportive parents, but the gaslights were flickering.

--

I’m telling this story chronologically and anecdotally, from the bottom up, because that is how we learned it. At first, all I could see was the details, the illogic of the system, and the effect on my child, primarily, and the teachers, secondarily. The connection between the tests and every other facet of school became clearer and sharper as time went on. I repeat that it was a kind, well-meaning school staffed by kind, well-meaning people. Looking back, every moment that involved fluster, or bluster, or frustration, or fury could be laid at the feet of the tests.

Homework in kindergarten: because of the tests. The wording of the homework: because of the tests. The crowd-management techniques: because of the tests. The recess policy: because of the tests. The phasing-out of playtime in the classroom: because of the tests. Library time only once a week, even for readers who got through a book a day: because of the tests. Even the good stuff – the yoga, the ice-cream parties – because of the tests.

--

That third year of school, it all became abruptly desublimated. The third graders in the classroom were preparing for the tests, and the second graders couldn’t avoid the subject. This was early 2009, and the art hour (half-hour, by this point) was spent making posters on the rather topical theme “Yes We Can!” – neatly harnessing our new president’s bold rhetoric for the tests.

The streamed maths groups (a bonus for our number-mad boy) were abandoned for the moment, because of test prep. Even the G & T programme (not a cocktail hour, but an hour a week of “enrichment” for kids deemed “gifted and talented”) was suspended for the 6-week duration of the testing and marking period.

A field trip to the art gallery was cancelled on the morning of the trip, in favour of more maths prep “for the tests.” This was a school that was rightly proud of the number of field trips it managed to provide on its limited budget, a bonus for children who didn’t necessarily have those resources in their home life. They were embarrassed about the last-minute cancellation and offered several different explanations, even though I was waiting with the docents for the bus full of children to arrive, and the voice over the phone explained the math situation.

Indeed, whenever we asked direct questions about the situation, we were told conflicting things. The teachers would say they’d been told to teach this way. The administration would say this was purely the teachers’ choice. I don’t want to blame the teachers or the administration, since it seems to me that’s precisely what this sort of policy is designed to do. But it’s hard not to be disappointed by the system-wide capitulation. We inquired, we lobbied, we even managed to call a meeting with some of the city administrators, but to no practical avail. The school lived and died by the test results, and so did the school’s spirit.

--

There were projects and classroom fun unconnected to the tests, of course. Our lad enjoyed the historical project, compiling a small book about a famous figure in history and then showing up in full costume. (We smiled as a rugged Ed Hillary mingled with Harriet Tubman, Betsy Ross, Susan B. Anthony, more than one Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and a Kennedy or two). The teacher took the pressure off the children with read-aloud stories every afternoon, and random craft activities for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the snowy season.

But the tests were around the corner, and the worry about the impending tests communicated itself from the top down. Children were advised about stress management techniques. The PTA got busy making “survival kits” for the tests (gum, tissues, water bottles). A friend with a child in a higher grade confided that she was torn between getting a doctor’s note for her brilliant but slightly fragile child, or upping the child’s medication to get her through the tests. Another high-achieving child of our acquaintance was freaking out, and worried that she might “fail” the tests; clearly the message that the smart kids should pull harder was getting through.

As the tests approached, anxiety permeated the school to a palpable degree. It was astonishing, upsetting, confusing, frustrating. If this school truly believed in its explicitly right-on mission, its mixed-age classrooms, its child-centred teaching and its inquiry-led curriculum (those latter two scarcely in evidence, now that we thought about it), then surely the quality of the teaching would prevail, and the tests would show that it was working? Why drill the children at all?

What we didn’t realize at that point was that the school was in a perilous position: never quite meeting its targets, year after year, and thus constantly in danger of never fully specified consequences for failing to make “Adequate Yearly Progress”. Details were hard to come by (unlike the test numbers, freely available on a handy web site where you could slice and dice the data by year, by subject, by comparable schools, by comparison with the city and the state at large).

The school was rumoured to have managed to have itself designated a “safe harbor” school – which is when you promise to change your approach, and thus can beg immunity from the consequences of failing to meet your target. In practice, the changes were incremental rather than qualitative – the turn of the screw. With the number of children succeeding “at or above grade level” hovering between 50 and 60 percent, occasionally higher or lower depending on class and subject, the school was simply treading water, year after year.

Indeed, the annual test results mostly varied by the margin of error. Given the number of children taking the tests each year, the loss of a single “safe bet” – a professor’s child, say – could make all the difference. No wonder the school was so eager to retain the children of the cadre of disgruntled parents who had begun to speak up about the invidious effects of the overpowering emphasis on tests.

--

I sought advice from other parents, several of whom shared the concern but were determined to tough it out, others of whom were already making exit plans for their children. One mother, a teacher on “mommy sabbatical,” was a PTA stalwart. She was the one who would show up to class with a trolley full of art gear and lead the children in exhilarating, challenging projects that had nothing to do with tests. In second grade, she started homeschooling her child, after a teacher took her aside and advised her that she’d never get what she was looking for from this school. She said with a shrug, “they’re just trapped in this system.”

After seriously considering homeschooling, we managed to transfer our child to a public school within walking distance. It’s the in-demand top-decile school that we’d been told we should be aiming for all along. I’d resisted, partly just because the admission process seemed so baroque and capricious (our house fell outside the gerrymandered district, even though we lived literally over the road from the school’s temporary digs while the new building was being constructed).

I’d also resisted out of principle. It seemed like giving in, to send our smart privileged offspring to the smart privileged school along with all the other smart privileged kids. What could we possibly contribute to a school composed largely of the children of academics, when we could be bussing our social capital across town to a brave little school that, as it turned out, was holding on by its fingernails?

It’s the traditional liberal dilemma, and I didn’t want to be a cliché. But I also didn’t want my child weeping over his homework, and I didn’t want to be spun any more contradictory stories about why he was learning what he was learning, and what was wrong with him for not wanting to learn what they were teaching.

We weren’t alone in our exodus. Some of the families we’d been working with to try and rescue the old school from its tangle of anxiety stayed on, but many bailed out along with us.

At the new school, I still volunteer, but not as much as I used to. The children are older and need less hands-on help in the classroom; the teachers have it under control, and frankly, there is more than enough parental largesse – both practical and financial - to go around. It’s a more traditional place, with teachers addressed by Mr and Mrs, and fewer field trips. But there’s recess every day, and art and music are prized, and bilingualism is seen as a feature rather than a bug; the children learn Chinese and celebrate their international heritage.

At the dedication of the new building for this school, the same chief of educational services gave a speech. This time he didn’t mention vandalism or test scores. He spoke to the parents, praising them for their dedication to the school and promising to do whatever it took to keep the school a good one. He was, quite literally, preaching to the converted. To the saved.

The tests are a month away. At the new school, the homework has only just begun to be about test practice, with the multi-choice quizzes that bore my child and the rote questions that still drive him bonkers. But he's managing. The prep is presented as a necessary evil, not overemphasized; thanks to the student catchment and the uniformly stellar annual test results, the teachers can afford not to freak out about it.

They use the same pre-masticated preparation material as the other school, including the green booklet on Editing and Revising which (trust me, I’m a copyeditor) contains at least one unintentional error per page. The teachers have complained but to no avail, but the children, at least, can laugh about it.

For these happy, healthy children, the tests are a minor hassle, a mile-wide flaming hoop, a tedious rubber stamp, a set of boxes to tick. They don’t need pep rallies or survival kits. The only thing they really need to be drilled in is how to sit still for 45 minutes without going to the bathroom. They will be measured, according to the laws, and will come out tall, fit, and healthy, as expected. They and their teachers will be able to relax and get on with the year.

Meanwhile, I wonder about the kids on the other side of town who continue to trust in the school that failed us.

The quiet boy, an extraordinarily fluent early reader, from a family of nine who lost their house to a disaster one Christmas and who were helped by a clothing drive organized by the school. The stroppy little guy, half the size of my son, who tried (without significant success) to beat him up in the bathroom one day, to the despair of his single dad who was doing everything to raise him right. My favourite, an irrepressible little dude whose hard-looking and underemployed father was sometimes the only other parent on the field trips.

Those children will be sitting their first bank of standardized tests in a month’s time, and they will have been under the gun since the beginning of the school year. The test scores at their school continue to hover in the fretful hinterland of not-good-enough, with an ironic, self-defeating, self-fulfilling kicker: the emphasis on raising the test scores has driven out a number of children pretty much guaranteed to do that for free.

The result, as the teachers scramble to prepare their charges for the annual weigh-in, is presumably the usual roundelay of chivvying and drilling and calming and cheerleading. The educational equivalent of ice chips and cold-packs to cool their fevers, pennies in their pockets and wedges in their shoes in the hope of getting them to hit the right numbers on the Plunket graph.

Reading back over this, I’m amazed that we stayed as long as we did at the first school, bobbing around like frogs while the water boiled around us. We, like our child, were new at this school thing, and still figuring out how it all worked. But we also stayed as long as we did because of the people. Writing this piece made me sad and nostalgic for that hard-working, dedicated community of people – the children, the parents, and the harassed teachers, administrators, and staff doing their best amid the sticky web of justifications and statistics that, they believed, tied their hands and ruled their school.

They first taught us how to go to school in America. They also taught us when and why to leave.