The Road to Berlin #2: The trail of the rubber seeds.

2014-10-24 14.42.48The Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Today was time to get on the trail of the rubber seeds that were brought here to Singapore in the 19th century after they’d been taken from Brazil years earlier, raised in Kew Gardens and then the seed of those seeds came here to be the progenitors of the world rubber industry and a vital strategic resource in the wars of the 2oth century.

2014-10-24 15.03.38Some of the original trees.

I’d been told that the trees were planted right here, before their seeds in turn were taken and planted in Malaya and what became Indonesia, in plantations that could be bled and milked like tame herds of cows. The trees in their natural state in Brazil’s rain forest were scattered and while they were tapped for rubber, it was on nothing like the scale that happened here. By the early 1900s, Malaya was producing 40% of the world’s rubber. No wonder the Japanese made sure they secured the supply in 1941.

2014-10-24 15.05.25Early plantation workers bleeding latex.

I took some pictures of the history on the panels and set off through the humid air into a garden of equatorial delights. There were plenty of diversions and distractions along the way to the Information Kiosk in the centre of the garden where I hoped to get some directions.

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It took me about half an hour of sweaty wanderings to find the man I needed to help me and yes, he assured me, the original trees were planted nearby and there was another ancient grove at the far end near the Tanglin Gate. I set off with his handy map.

2014-10-24 16.18.22Site of the first plantings.

I got to the place and as I didn’t quite know what a mature rubber tree looked like, I had to wait until someone from the Park staff came along. In the meantime, I watched two Indian workers clearing around some palms and baking in their uniforms with rubber boots to cook their poor feet. The man running the weed eater was dressed up like a bee keeper armoured against stings and he must have been roasting.

2014-10-24 15.57.22Roasted.

Finally, I saw an aged Chinese gentleman approaching with a broom and asked him where the tree was; he pointed it out and I confess I wouldn’t have guessed. A slow lazy lizard scuttled across my path as if to say, “Here be dragons”.

2014-10-24 16.04.49Once I got up close to the tree, there was an immediate giveaway: the angular slanting cut in the old bark, healed up now but a sure sign this rubber tree had at one time been bled of its latex riches and started a whole new industrial revolution that enabled motorised transport to encircle the globe on land and in the air.

2014-10-24 16.05.21So this was the natural resource, the wonder material that had brought my grandmother and my great aunt into contact with a German rubber company manager in Liverpool in 1898, Carl Hasenburg. Both of them would – according to my mother – bear him a son, my grandmother out of wedlock, my great aunt in.

2014-10-24 16.10.07A stroller takes time out to cool off by the lake.

This was the same substance that ruined my great grandfather’s fortunes during the great war. My grandmother told me often how they had lost their money when her father’s shares in a German Indonesian rubber company had been made worthless by the outbreak of hostilities. This is the trail I am following to Germany on Monday: it is pretty certain that he took these shares in some way connected to his German son-in-law’s presence in the Bywater family.

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The equatorial jungles have brought down many venture capitalists in their time and when men and nations fight over strategic resources, there must be losers. Here in this lush and well manicured park, it is hard to imagine that we would kill each other for a substance as harmless as latex, or risk our life’s savings on the produce of trees in far off gardens in somebody elses slice of the globe.

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But it is as the song says, Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the Midday Sun. I was past any more wanderings and deliberations and headed for the gate, catching an air-conditioned bus back to my air-conditioned condo with its cool radiant pool for the expatriate colony that lives here, I suppose, as the early rubber barons did. Jenny the Filipino maid was there to greet me; my Nanny too had a life with maids, before the Great War rubber crash.

2014-10-24 16.37.55Henry Ridley, the man that got the seeds to grow.

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The Road to Berlin #1: Singapore stopover.

After two days near the equator, I’m getting used to the heat and catching the rights tides of sleep. A trip into the town centre by bus on Tuesday was enough to persuade me I was still a bit too jet lagged for shopping, but you have to love the public statuary.

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This fiery lion caught my eye and is only one of many works of art that compete for attention with the supercharged power of the neon brands on shop fronts. Wednesday was going to be different, as I planned to find and visit the Changi Memorial Museum and chapel to locate a plaque I believed was sited there. This is a memorial to two of the nine airmen executed by the Japanese in August 1945 on Changi Beach.

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Sub Lieutenants Baxter and Haberfield were Kiwi pilots with the Fleet Air Arm, men of the RNZNVR who had flown off carriers in the British Pacific Fleet and were shot down and captured in the attacks on the Palembang oil refinery late in 1944. Haberfield was a relation of a Māori friend in Christchurch and Baxter had flown in 1833 Squadron off my Dad’s carrier, HMS Illustrious.

The taxi ride found me there quickly and cheaply – taxis here are really an extension of public transport rather than a luxury – and there it was. The chapel was there with its altar and wartime cross made by prisoners from an artillery shell. It was an outdoor site of worship and a living memorial to those prisoners who had lived and died under the Japanese occupation.

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To one side was a sandbox with sand from the beach where the men were beheaded, their bodies dumped at sea. There was note paper for messages to be placed on the memorial board opposite. I wrote a mihi mihi for the dead and lit two candles.

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There were a few tourists coming into the chapel including Japanese and their children. There were Tsuru garlands, peace offerings hung there sent by school children from Japan.

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After a quiet prayer and giving my poroporoaki to the mate, I left them to their rest and toured the museum. A man came out from a door behind the chapel as I left the memorial and walked past me with a sheaved samurai sword wrapped in cloth. I had a flashback to Japan and Hideaki Nishida offering me the sword of his dead kamikaze brother, Hisashi.

In the museum I learned of the suffering and the bravery of the Singaporeans and the Allied prisoners. I found the plaque I was looking for. His sister had come in 2002 and laid him to rest with comrade Baxter.

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E te rangatira, maua ko to hoa, rere atu, haere atu ra!

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The Last Goodbye: Blackball Mine Closure 50th Anniversary, 27.9.2014.

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The Worker’s Memorial Banner, 2008 centennial ceremony.

It was a wet and wild day traveling over to the Coast last Saturday for a very special hello and goodbye: fifty years ago, the historic closure of the famous Blackball mine took place and all but succeeded in killing off the community where I grew up. But in the long run, so far, it has failed to extinguish the memories of those who were there and were now coming together to celebrate the coal mining culture that formed us.

I was never a miner, but a miner’s son – Dad worked at Roa, nearby – but as a school kid I went down the mine and with my father later, in my high school years, went with him up into the Paparoa Ranges and down into his daily place of toil. It was hard working getting to the mine mouth up there let alone the walk into the face to start hewing. They were brave and hardy men and we owed them a debt of respect.

1a The Club

Blackball Workingmen’s Club.

It is that debt I have been dealing with for many years in my writing and one of the reasons I was going – apart from seeing old hands and old friends – was to respond to a request from the organising committee to read some of the Blackball poetry I’ve written over the years. I was also taking along some work related to the Pike River disaster of 19 November 2010 when twenty nine men died in a completely avoidable tragedy, had they been properly protected by legislation, officialdom, strong unions and sound management.

All this of course has been a source of strife and struggle since mines were first mined: when Les Neilson, a grandson of Blackball miners, a miner’s son and the father of a miner got up to open proceedings, he began by listing the twenty eight men who had died in the Blackball and Roa mines since coal was first won from those brooding ranges with their deep twisted layers of coal and stone.

1b.Les Neilson

Les Neilson reading the roll of the miners’ dead.

This was a very sobering way to begin the evening, a reminder of what it cost to extract that black gold from the mountains to fuel the nation’s appetite in war and peace. The mood lightened as some of the old hands – still on the surface with the rest of us – sat in a circle and told their tales. Hank Hines, Digger Howden and their wives as well as Walter Shaw all held our attention with tales of derring do, close shaves and practical jokes. It was a rich sharing of memories that with their passing away will fade from sight.

3.The elders

The elders speak.

After they’d all had their say, there was a gathering for a group photograph with other miners and elders from the community, a reminder of some great times and memorable characters no longer with us. The last time I can recall anything like this was the 1995 Blackball School Centennial, when hundreds came to join together to remember what community and shared hardship meant: the bonds formed through work, play, sport and recreation, politics and trade unionism, education and creativity. Now, there was only a handful of those of those us present in 1995 but here, on this night we had returned and rejoiced all over again.

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The elders pose for posterity.

The next act was the cutting of the 50 Cake and then it was almost time to eat – except they still had not asked me to step up. I was quietly hoping they might have forgotten, as I could see that people were getting a bit weary and restless. Performance anxiety looking for a way out.

4.The cake

Mrs Howden and Mrs Hines cut the cake.

No such luck: the call came so I stepped up to read having cut the programme down to three, maybe four pieces. The first was a feisty ballad called The First Church of the Socialist Millennium (RIP) where I remember the great Blackball Miners Hall and what it meant to us as a place of community life: union meetings, films, dances, socials, boxing matches, a hub of activity and pleasure.

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Reading Check Inspector 29 for the Pike River men.

That got a thumbs up from Les, my fiercest literary critic – “that’s the best bloody poem you’ve written”, he observed – so I knew I was surfing the zeitgeist. Anyone who tries to read literary arty-farty clever dick verse in this kind of environment deserves a kicking anyway. I read one of the Blackball sonnets then launched into Check Inspector 29, an angry rant that lets the powers that be have it right where it hurts. That connected, so to bring things down I finished with a a more tender lament written for the families: “Mine”.

Mine.
i.m. The Pike River 29, November 19th 2010.

Son, there was a time when you were mine.
Brother, when the shining day was ours.
Friend, there was an hour when all went well.
Darling, for a moment we were love.
Father, you were always close at hand.
Human, we were people of the light.

And now, the mountain says ‘he’s mine’‚
And now, the rivers say ‘he’s ours’‚
And now, the darkness says ‘my friend’‚
And now, the silence says ‘my love’‚
And now, the coal says ‘father time’‚
And now, we wait for the day to dawn.

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman

I’m glad I’ve been able to give something back: as I said to everyone there as I began, I’d never been a miner and those trips underground I’d found scary. I could never have done what my father did for all those years. I told those few remaining how grateful I was for the way they had put bread on the family table, clothes on our backs, educated us, paid for health care and pensions for the older ones past working, risking their lives daily to build a world which even now, dark forces were attempting to undermine, to dismantle and roll back the world of shared resources and shared power men like the miners had tried to build for present and future generations.

That is why I stand with these men, because they deserve our respect and our wholehearted gratitude. I may not be wearing the helmet of underground experience, but in their honour, the wives and the mothers too, I will wear the cloth cap of my poetry until finally, I too go under the ground.

8.Miner JPH

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The Wild, Wet, Wonderful Going West…a festival of words, Sunday (2).

Sunday morning dawned a little finer and we breakfasted then checked out of our misty hideaway. First time I’ve ever stayed in a place with a helipad! Recommended if you have the readies. We were heading in for the day’s events and my reading of The Lost Pilot at midday. I was nervous as always but excited, just glad the book was finally getting a chance to be read in public as we’d missed out on the Auckland and Christchurch gigs for the memoir.

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It was going to be a bit of a swan song too as the book goes out of print with this final event and lives on solely as an e-book in cyberspace. The realities of modern publishing dictate that when a book slows down in sales to a crawl, then warehousing copies for orders that might trickle in slowly just ain’t going to happen. I wanted to make it a special farewell event to my dear friend, this book that is way more than just my writing at work. Whatever happens now the life and the journey that provoked it goes on.

Hideaki TLP Grab

Hideaki Nishida of Osaka with his copy of The Lost Pilot. His uncle died in the attack on Dad’s ship.

So we kicked off the morning with Robert Sullivan introducing four of his MIT poetry course students: Michelle Bolton, Amber Esau, Annaleese Jochems and Kirsti Whalen. Amber had just the night before won the packed house Poetry Slam and each of them gave a reading from their works in progress. It’s heartening to see the kind of support and encouragement writers starting out can get in the world of letters today. We had to come a different way in the 1960s and onwards – not better, not worse, just different. The potential and the sheer talent on display was impressive.

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The following session on yachtsman Johnny Wray’s classic seafaring book – South Sea Vagabonds with Andrew Fagan and Debbie Lewis discussing Wray’s homebuilt yacht, Ngataki – was delightful and kind of scary. Debbie now owns the vessel and as a solo mother with her son in the 1970s had sailed all over the Pacific, the Indian and South Atlantic oceans in feats of seamanship that were to say the least, epics of courage and steely determination.

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After another delicious morning tea came a much anticipated session with Tina Makereti and Selina Tusitala Marsh discussing Tina’s new book Where The Rēkohu Bone Sings – a novel set on the Chathams/Wharekauri. This was a rich and fascinating account of Tina’s journey towards the book and her experience writing it, including visits to those windswept islands where her whakapapa calls to her. I was on next and it was a bit hard to concentrate at times but breathing deep got me through.

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As my name was called I got up and walked up the steps to the lectern: thirty minutes to make this story count. I had given Wayne on the sound booth a Powerpoint to run behind me with images from the book on a continuous loop, thinking that this would give the audience another entry point as I read. I made a start with a mihi to my God, to the dead of the attack and to the living present, mana whenua, manuhiri – then began.

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I’d chosen four short readings and practiced the timing: opening with my Dad’s death sentence; on to a section on the kamikaze and a poem, The Departed; a section on my host Neil Hall and our lost fathers; finishing with the epilogue where in a kawe mate at the sailors’ marae in Devonport, I carry my dead into the meeting house, my sailor parents and the six kamikaze. It was hard at times as the emotion hit me and I knew I had to hold it together for the people out there listening. As soon as I finished the last word of the final mihi to the dead, Murray cut the lights and there was silence. A perfect ending.

Kamikaze 1945

What happened next was evidence enough that literature can carry emotion from heart to heart if we steel ourselves in its making and its telling. I was to meet a number of people who not only wanted to have a copy of the book signed, but also to tell me their stories. More than that, the first couple that came up to me as lunch was served and the people began moving about were both weeping. Sean (whose name I did not find out until I asked him later) hugged me sobbing for at least a whole minute while his wife Victoria stood beside us, her tears flowing. It turned out her father had been a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain – young and fresh like those kamikaze pilots most of them, sacrifices to war gods on both sides.

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It is always a privilege to sign books, as if it were not enough just to write them; to inscribe to an individual is something special, whatever the cynics might say. It has more to do with our need for connection with each other: everyone who asked me had some link to the war and its losses. Like Tyl, who was at the war’s beginning a young German boy born in Kobe in 1937, growing up in the German embassy compound in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion of China, spared the horrors of his peers, Allied children captured with their parents, by virtue of the Germany’s Axis accord with Japan. He later was taken for a ride in a C-47 transport by the incoming victorious Americans, transport pilots who had flown over the Hump from Burma to supply the Communists and the Nationalists. Histories miraculous and ironic.

We were ready after that to take off for a while and share a coffee with Margaret before sitting in on the marvelous and entertaining session given by Robin Robilliard on her life at Rocklands farm in Golden Bay: Hard Country. Then it was time to get the taxi to the airport – or at least, order another as ours had been pinched – and fly home into the gathering evening, going south from the pleasures of Going West.

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The Wild, Wet, Wonderful Going West…a festival of words on Friday and Saturday (1).

What a privilege to land in a wet and blustery Auckland on Friday, whisked in a Prius by Arvinder our Sikh cabbie to a rental car company called James Blond somewhere in Glen Eden, then on to the War Memorial Hall in Titirangi to scout the venue for our weekend at the Going West Festival of Books and Writers. We were a little early for action: Naomi McCleary the wonderful organiser was in the foyer to greet us and say there was nothing happening till 7pm with the powhiri.

So we got back into the wee red Yaris and motored off to find the Waitakere Estate along Scenic Drive in the bush, our B&B for the event. It took a bit of finding in the mist (later that night we got lost in the dark) but what luxury. We were able to freshen up, get changed for the evening, then sit down for a fine meal before leaving (the blue cod was truly excellent). Then off back down the twisting drive and a superbly laid goat track, back up to the snaking main road into town.

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Once there, we found the speakers for the evening, Anne Kennedy and Robert Sullivan getting ready to deliver their addresse on the festival theme, a Curnow quote, “Small islands of meaning”. Both gave stimulating readings to get us underway and the excitement was definitely building in that historic hall, the one that has hosted all previous events. We would find out in the panel on state houses the next day that many of these war memorial halls were built all over the country after WW2. No more huge plinths for the dead, but community facilities for the living. In Greymouth, we had the war memorial swimming baths, now sadly destroyed.

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The evening rocked on with a panel starring Graham Brazier and Harry Lyons of Hello Sailor interviewed ably by Finlay McDonald. What a set: rich chat, wonderful one-liners from Brazier, reflections by Harry and then the two of them would jump up and play.

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This was a tone-setting panel for the relaxed and communal festival that followed. It never felt over the two days that you were anywhere else but amongst friends and book lovers. The after match supper was pretty impressive too: I can’t think of another such gathering in the country that feeds the punters as if we were all part of a Country Womens’ Institute meeting from the 1960s where all the women had brought home baking.

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After a good sleep in a bed as wide as the Queen Mary and a breakfast looking out onto the wild and windswept Waitakere ranges, we sallied forth for a morning of meaty sessions (Crown Lynn pottery, State housing and social history, the Brasch journals and the Beaglehole letters, amongst some of the attractions). The Unity Books stall looking somewhat like a colonial fort with its doughty purveyors of delights on hand was there for our pleasure. I got Caro to order me a copy of Ian Wedde’s The Grass Catcher (sold out) and lo, by Sunday, it was there. Magic.

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State of the Nation panel: Wallace Chapman, a warm and interactive host amongst the audience with a mic!

Post-afternoon tea, it was my turn to have a conversation with John Pule about his powerful epic poem, The Bond of Time. He ran the session by talking to images on slides, people and places that mattered to him and it worked wonderfully. We both managed to keep relaxed when the slides seemed to disappear (he’d a left a blank in the middle)- we had a really enjoyable onstage exchange. He even talked about my tatau, those he designed, as one more facet of his great artistic range. It all went down really well from the feedback we were given.

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What a first day with so many pleasures: our friend Margaret Samuels met us for an evening meal afterwards and we were able to mull a rich and varied diet of writers on writing over a selection of Indian curries. I’d seen so many enthusiastic people wanting to get involved in what Murray Gray, Naomi and their team had laid on for us; it was really refreshing after weeks of dirty political dealings flayed alive on the hustings. Tomorrow was promising more of the same, but different. Even old Tennyson would have have approved: he sure looks the part of a Titirangi hippie right here.

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Waltzing with the Zimmerman: Bob Dylan at 73.

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“I’ll see him anywhere, I’ll stand in line..” (Brownsville Girl, 1988).

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Leaving the Christchurch concert venue last night after spending two more hours in Bob Dylan’s public realm, I fell in with an angry fellow concert goer who felt he’d been short-changed. “Salon! Salon! I didn’t come to hear bloody salon music!” he bellowed to somebody beside him who was trying to avoid him.

He had a leather jacket, a black leather pork pie hat and he looked like he belonged in that Dylan concert crowd of 40-something plussers, like me (66). I ventured that as Dylan was (i) 73 now and (ii), his hands were arthritic, he never played guitar but stuck to the mouth harp and the piano, maybe we should cut him some slack?

Black pork pie hat was having none of that: “making excuses, I don’t want excuses, I want the music!”. I guess he meant the set lists from the 1990s? I said, “Sure, ok, he ain’t doing Brixton Academy 1995, which was fantastic back then but he’s getting old now like the rest of us.” My new friend wouldn’t have that either, but he did admit that as his girlfriend (nowhere to be seen) had got him a free ticket, he hadn’t actually had to pay.

Interesting: he got a freebie and still moaned and complained. We came abreast of the Irish pub on Lincoln Road and he swung in the door, “I need a whiskey after that!” and disappeared from my life. I wandered on down the road to pick up my scooter, quietly brimming with the warmth of my evening near that old fading genius whose voice can still crack sticks.

Yes, that’s the image of some who say he can’t sing anymore (same as those who said he never could), but that argument is as futile to have as the one I didn’t pursue with Pork Pie Hat. I was just glad the American Shakespeare was still sentient, still on the planet, still running around the world, and my neck of the woods.

I literally fell over myself to get there, stumbling heading down section GG for seat E1 and going almost head over heels on the shallow steps. I was cast, on my side and head pointing downhill, a little shocked. A kind fellow fan inverted me and dusted me off. That was an interesting start to the evening.

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On the left of the stadium, up a little but not too much or too close, it was a pretty good seat for the $160 I could afford so I got to counting down: Texting, WhatsApp-ing and Tweeting family members, including when Dylan came on and got started (my son eventually told me to put the phone in my pocket and enjoy the gig). A couple of us got the torch flash from the usher for snapping pics (one woman had a bloody great iPad up in the air making a video – doh!).

The set burst off with Things Have Changed and ran through virtually the same songs as in Sydney two nights prior: mostly from the Tempest (2012) with Tangled up in Blue in the middle, then Watchtower and Blowin’ in the Wind for the predictable encore. It was only these old chestnuts that got the polite crowd worked up as in “the old days’, especially Watchtower, which galvanised what passes for the moshpit at his concerts these days, to get up and boogie.

It’s true to say that Pork Pie Hat was right: these were slower bluesy and ballad treatments and Dylan – minus the youthful akimbo stance and swagger, looking like a vaguely animated Mississippi riverboat gambler wandering around the Sunset Rest Home, unaware he’s not on the steamer these days – wobbled and shambled, mostly.

He held the mic stand between choruses, stepped back and waved his arms under the wide-brimmed white panama and conducted the polite, uniformly-suited band to the ending of each number when he was done. The lights would darken: he would variously appear at the piano, where he played with vigour waving his left foot off the floor now and then, and later, wander back to the mic to pull out the harp for a piercing solo.

I loved it. He is what he is. To hell with that “living legend” crap: he’s an old song and dance man, like he once said with plenty of song and sprinkling of dance. As he sang in a cracking version of Early Roman Kings, “I ain’t dead yet, my bells still rings..”. That’ll do me.

And somebody should tell Pork Pie Hat that this song is not at all “Salon” – it can easily be read as a prophecy and a parable and an attack on the “users and cheaters” he was fingering back in the 1960s, the money traders and gun runners that have brought the world to its knees and to the brink once more. Go, Bob.

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Forgetful heart
Lost your power of recall
Every little detail
You don’t remember at all
The times we knew
Who would remember better then you

Forgetful heart
We laughed and had a good time you and I
It’s been so long
Now you’re content to let the days go by
When you were there
You were the answer to my prayer

Forgetful heart
We loved with all the love that life can give
What can I say
Without you it’s so hard to live
Can’t take much more
Why can’t we love like we did before

Forgetful heart
Like a walking shadow in my brain
All night long
I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain
The door has closed forevermore
If indeed there ever was a door

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PROTEST POEM: Man on a bus stop (apologies to Bob Dylan).

Bob Brings it Home

Man on a bus stop (apologies to Bob Dylan)

Man on a bus stop reading Dirty Politics
Politician on the road thinking up a new trick
Slater’s in his dungeon poisoning the blogosphere
I’m on the pavement how in hell we got to here

Ah beware be aware for liars lying everywhere
For users cheaters lowlife abusers
Typing up a fantasy
For someone else to use us

Man on a benefit woman on dirt pay
Can’t get ahead now greed is the game to play
PR disciples printing burning bibles
Tell you what you want to hear nothing reliable

Ah beware be aware spin doctors on the air
For ad men and bad men tobacco men
And booze crews chewing up
and spitting you

Vote her vote him the mad eyes the fake grin
Bribe you bribe him tax cuts and back again
Jobs gone to China sold the family silver
Welfare for Walmart and haters of Obama

Ah beware be aware they love you in election year
promises and snake oil integrity gone off the boil
destroyers of democracy
don’t give a shit for you and me

Man on the bus stop reading Dirty Politics
Jumps on the bus feeling dirty and heartsick
Can’t get his hands clean
Can’t believe what he’s just seen

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman 2014

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