An impromptu admission, Tielt, Belgium.


It was a glorious summer’s day as we stepped off the train from Ghent and made our way out of the small town of Tielt on our hire cycles, heading for the Achielle Bicycle Factory near Egem, in Belgium. Jeanette had been planning this part of our trip for weeks, if not months, visiting the factory from where she imports these quality cycles into New Zealand. As we raced downhill on the cycleway out of town, just after 10am, I got my phone out and took her picture.

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You can see what an excellent cycleway it is, complete with yellow plastic bollards to mark out a bus stop, one of which you can just see over her shoulder. I was so pleased with this effort, I decided to take a selfie.

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I had my new racing cyclist’s hat on and was feeling pretty damn good. Next thing…

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…I was airborne, with my finger still pressed on the phone as the above aerial shot indicates. I smashed onto the cycleway, banged my head, saw stars, broke my glasses and ended up on top of my bike, knee bleeding, hand bleeding, cursing my stupidity and swearing that now,  I’d  *#@**!!-up Jeanette’s big day – all in the same moment, sore, dazed and unable to get up. I’d rammed one of the yellow plastic bollards and canned off.

Next thing I know, a man is leaning over me, taking my pulse and asking if I can stand up? He’s an off-duty nurse it turns out and he’s ringing an ambulance. Jeanette arrives having noticed my absence and spotting me lying down, with my angel attending, cycled back to view the wreckage. Now I’m in an ambulance, on my way staring at the vehicles’s ceiling, to Sint-Andriesziekenhuis,  in the hands of the wonderful Belgian hospital service for the next four hours.

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I can testify that when this picture was taken, I was feeling pretty groggy and chastened. I’m not sure what was worse: the pains in my body or the dent to my pride. I’d landed in a municipal hospital with a population of around 20,000, with a dedicated, efficient and caring staff who, without demur whizzed me from roadside to outpatient and finally discharge with a kindness and care I can still hardly believe.

I was given a full inspection: brain function checked, X-rayed, a CT scan, a tetanus shot and a referral to the opthalmologist after a fracture was detected on the orbit floor, the skull bone beneath my right eye. He showed us the picture, assured me the crack was minimal and not leaking blood into the sinus cavity. I’d dodged that bullet. I could leave hospital but should keep an eye on things (I did suffer nose bleeds for a few days, but they eventually stopped). I was meant to avoid sniffing and blowing my nose, which I mostly forgot to observe.

After a consultation with the accounts section, charged a set 150 EUR fee and giving our insurance details, I was discharged with the advice to seek medical care if symptoms like vomiting, vertigo and fever recurred. We then walked from the hospital back to our bikes and carried on to the factory, about 10-15kms away.

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On retrieving the bikes, I noticed that my blood had dried onto the path; I reflected on just how sweetly Providence had ensured I was not so much more the worse for wear than I actually was. Sure, my body ached in several places and over the next week, my bruised ribs would make sleeping difficult, but I’d escaped with a mild concussion delivering me a regular daily headache. I could claim – rather lamely – to have shed my blood on Flanders fields.

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I may not have felt much like going for another bike ride, but I was determined that Jeanette wasn’t going to miss out on her visit to meet her suppliers and tour the factory. Fortunately, the day was so hot that the workers had been sent home early so our late arrival meant the owners were much freer to meet and greet us, receive our gift of manuka honey and give us the guided tour.

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The sign at the factory gate has a bit of history: Achielle were originally frame makers who supplied other manufacturers, but when in 1946 they decided to make the whole bicycle themselves, they crushed all the old frames – only to find later there was shortage of the steel tube needed! They survived that and have gone from strength to strength, producing some of the world’s best hand-made commuter bicycles, on site.

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There was one willing worker left when we arrived and you can still see how hot it was.

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Some of the wonderful works of cycle art that we saw that day.

I’m so glad we made it and my moment of madness didn’t force a cancellation on the day. That would have been very sad, not to say mortifying. The reason I’ve written this is not just to celebrate these marvelous machines, nor to make obvious my own shortcomings – but rather to salute the Belgian hospital system as I experienced it that day.

On reflection, what is it that we owe to each other as human beings that these good people personified that day in their treatment of me, a stranger? It was in my view a duty of care enacted, a Good Samaritan-like culture where everyone from the nurse who saw me lying on the roadside to the nurse who waved us farewell on discharge, treated me as an equal, as one of their own.

This is the fruit of civilization; when I hear of the woes of the NHS in the UK and the madcap schemes of Republicans in the US to undo the minimal gains that Obama was able to make in bringing healthcare within the reach of all American citizens – I have to ask myself, what does it take for the world to act like these Belgian angels did towards me? What is the difference? Why not for all? How can we leave each other on the road?

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There was icing on the cake, by the way: I broke my glasses, as you can see in the above image of my shiner. They’re frameless and the arm came off on the right hand lens. A temporary fix by Jeanette got me to an optician in Paris a couple of days later; they were Silhouette dealers and fixed them in fifteen minutes, no charge. Grace abounding.

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the latest coup: poem


the latest coup seen from Kaikoura after the 7.8M quake



i. Steve Bannon surveys a plate of stale lamingtons


Like I told the Pope

and like I’m telling the President

there’s good capitalism

and there’s bad capitalism

and one’s come off its Judeo-Christian

foundations, so we’re here to fix it

and fix Big Government, like Lenin did.

What the fuck are these pink fluffy dice

on my desk anyway? Libtards?



ii.Donald Trump slips on a pair of jandals


Fantastic. Beautiful. Signing orders.

I could do this all day.

I could do anything all day.

There’s never been a President like me.

Never has been. Beautiful.

What’s next, Steve? Who cares?

I’m what’s next, me.

See these crappy made-in-China flip flops.

They’re Hillary’s! That’s funny! Hilarious!



iii.  Mike Pence goes whale watching.


Mr President? Mr President? Sir?

Dear Lord, why won’t he see me?

I’m right here, here behind Steve.

What if he died, Steve? Steve?

Steve, you asshole! Sorry, Steve.

I’m Number Two, not you.

I try harder. You know I do.

Send me to New Zealand, please! Anywhere

but here. I love whales, watching you.



iv. Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway go to Hobbiton


Were holding them accountable!

We sure are. Steve says so.
And Donald backs him up. You like Orcs?

Sure, Orcs are fine with me. Gollum, too?

Gollum is so cool, he’s like Donald.

Who’s Frodo then? Mike Pence?

Mike who? No way! Frodo’s such a loser, keep

it real! That Steve, he’s gotta be Sauron!

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To Aitutaki


Last day on Rarotonga, off into Avarua and few hours wait at the airport for our Air Rarotonga flight to Aitutaki at 4.30pm. The tiny Embraer Bandeirante is intimate after the big 777-200 that flew us here: you can watch the co-pilot do his crossword after takeoff. It is a milk run after all, but I do like pilots who keep an eye on what is going on outside the aircraft.

Crossword pilot

A short 50 minute run and we’re over Aitutaki and coming in on paradise; Aki our driver to Paradise Cove welcomes us with fragrant ‘ei (lei) of frangipani and gardenia, and then Jeanette’s friends, Ade and Chris repeat the honour. They’re Kiwi expats who spend the New Zealand winter here.


The van looks like a painter’s wagon from the 1980s with rear seating looted from a Humber or an old Railways bus. We rattle along under palms and pull up at the place well named after a biblical oasis. Our thatched, stilted whare on the beach is named Are Tiare Taina – Gardenia House.


Jeanette who has been battling a headache for the last 48 hours has to lie down, while I do a recce of the beach: fabulous site, the surf breaking way out on the reef and the water at the land’s edge, almost still. It proves a long night for her and we’re glad when morning dawns for the new day.


I head down for breakfast on the beach and afterwards, hire a bike to ride down to Maina and the local trading post to get her some fruit and ice blocks. It’s all very laidback with plenty of scooter traffic and few motor vehicles. The store has everything including plastic garlands for the discerning scooter rider to decorate their head. I might invest later.


On my return, after some sustenance, Jeanette feels up to a walk so we set off back down the same road in search of a café, that proves elusive. There is a dairy open and after some cool drinks, we head home, picked up separately by a nice young local woman on a flash new Honda 50: she takes Jeanette to the whare and comes back for me. Class. Not like the motor vehicles we thumbed that roared on by.

Breakfast beach

I thank her and deliver a mihi and a blessing in (NZ) Māori; when she looks bemused I ask her if she understood me. No, she knew it was Māori from back here but she didn’t get it all, so I translate. “Thank you for your hospitality to strangers, may the Lord bless and keep you always”.


As the sun goes down and the first stars emerge, we share a meal of tuna and mashed potato with salad under the open skies, giving the last few bites to Bitza, the beach cat who knows just how to rub tourists up the right way at the right time: perfect. Tomorrow, it’s off to hire scooters at Popoara Rentals, then swimming and paddle boarding into the lagoon.


Another morning dawns at Paradise Cove – which we will later learn has a less than paradisal e-Coli problem, so no swimming off the beach. Breakfast with a die-for view precedes our expedition to hire a pair of scooters from Popoara and explore the island. The two 125cc Velimoto auto scoots look a little like they have been imported from an Eastern bloc country before the fall of the Wall, but they point and shoot, which is the main thing.

Scooter baby

Having independence means we can explore at our own pace, so off we buzz on a circuit of Aitutaki; not quite the Isle of Man TT, but close. The average speed is 30kph on a limit of 40: what’s the hurry anyway? We take it easy. It is strange to ride without a helmet, in shorts and jandals, but after a while it seems normal – everybody else does. Just don’t fall off, ok? There is a hospital.


Back for lunch after a windblown fun ride past waves of coconut palms, we find divine organic food at Tauono’s Cafe just down the road, probably the best meal I’ve tasted for years. Banana chicken with local delicacies, like apple breadfruit and coconut cake to follow. Sonja the chef is a German-Canadian import who married into the local culture years ago and is now a widow, after her beloved Tauono died in 2009. Now she carries on the torch for organic gardening and cooking. She should be world famous.


Time for a swim and we head up the lagoon, to meet a couple of local spearfishermen coming in from out beyond the reef with a load of small fish. The water is warm but shallow, so I float while Jeanette plays with her GoPro waterproof video camera. The real fish fun will come on Monday with the Teking Reef tour: here there are only starfish and a schools of sprats that skip along the shoreline, pounced on by herons at dawn and dusk.


Next we visit Ade and Chris in their expat bach and get a bit of local history, arranging to meet at the Night Market for a meal after 5pm. They have plenty of inside goss after four years coming and going; now they spend most of their time on the island. It could grow on me. I think you would need to feel that a certain part of your creative life was behind you; that you were prepared to disappear out of your old New Zealand identity, shed that skin and reinvent yourself as a local, like these two happy Kiwis.

Pig and fire

The Night Market is fun: a few stalls selling local kai, goat curry, chicken and beef; plenty of tourists like us have turned up to feast. After gorging on the delicious spicy chicken, we spend some time at the Fishing Club where a party is starting after the day’s fishing contest. This is a big deal, with a team over from Raro to compete.


There’s a local culture group in the park with drums and fire dancing to top off the evening; their amazing party trick is to do the Olympic Rings, two dancers on top of three and twirling fire. After this display, we scoot in the dark down to The Boat Shed bar for the Bledisloe Cup game, where the All Blacks inflict a 29-9 fire dance on the Wallabies and we head home replete.


Today is the second leg of the island exploration: breakfasted, we mount the scooters and head south to Maina and some tourist shopping first at the trading post. After a coffee and a chat to the cook and barista at the store cafe – “I tell my friends to come here and not Rarotonga – that’s like Auckland, or Sydney!” – we head off onto the sandy coastal tracks and the red dirt volcanic trails of the inner island.


Our first strike of gold is to see a local fisherman out on the reef, coming back in across the lagoon, poling his yellow boat: gold on turquoise, it is like a jewelled icon in a vast blue cathedral vaulted by the sky, established on the waters. We are looking for the ancient marae site – Te Pokai o Rae – but no success so far. Passing local cultivations of taro, cassava and banana, we remember Timi our guide on Rarotonga and feel at least a little well informed.


The usual scattering of chickens punctuates our noisy passage past goats tethered and loose, pigs tied up and crunching coconuts, which lie sprouting on the roadside. Easy to forget they are giant seeds: warning, do not stand under a tree for too long! Death can occur when the nuts fall like cannonballs.


We find the marae with its mysterious groups of stone witnesses and wonder what went on here back in time, before the Papa’a arrived to break the sky open and change the order of this world with the book and the gun. The silence is piercing.


Back at the Maina Store, we order burgers and chat with Klaus and his son, whose German I heard at the park last night. He is a former pearl trader from Munich, now living off the share market: his mother a Tahitian who met his German father in Paris. We swap addresses and spend a nice time speaking German, mine a trifle rusty but he is polite and helpful with corrections. The son proudly shows us his sheath knife made with a Sollingen blade and bought in Bangkok.


The afternoon is swimming time: we find a good spot near where our friends recommended, passing Ade’s Threads and asking permission. She is fine and gives directions, so we won’t blunder into the pricey, exclusive Pacific Resort where the well heeled go to escape the less well provided for.


The beach is the same and the water is a democracy, once we plunge in and look back at their expensive loungers and warning signs that the sand there is a private place. It ain’t: the locals pass by as always, doing what they do. The lagoon is warm and healing, it’s a pleasure just to float around like driftwood and chat idly. I feel for a moment like my world has disappeared, the one back home with its octopus arms of stress and concerns. That’s why we’re here.


The day ends with a superb meal at Tupuna’s Cafe with the promise of church tomorrow and more divine singing from the heart of Aitutaki. Back at the whare, it’s Island Night and we lie in bed listening to the pounding drums.


Sunday dawns like Saturday, with a trifle more cloud but the same atmosphere as usual: relaxed and easy. We head for church before 10am and arrive to the sound of joyful harmonies within the white vision that is Ziona Tapu – Holy Zion, the heavenly mountain of the Lord.

Haahi 1

Within her walls, the white clad choir, the women with their decorated woven hats, the men with blinding white shirts and thin black ties proceed to call up heaven on earth with powerful acapella singing in Aituaki Māori and English. The visitors – us – are welcomed and the service swings into action.


On the painted and decorated ceiling, I spy an anchor facing the painting of the ark of the tabernacle on the other wall, the Holy of Holies, with inscription “Ebera 6:19”. I release it’s a famous verse in Hebrews, about hope being an anchor for the soul, “which enters the Presence behind the veil…where Jesus has entered for us”. They know their bible here and the iconography tells a story. Every time they sing, I feel uplifted by the raw power of their worship and carried to that place of which the anchor speaks.


After the service we head out to Koru Cafe for lunch, past the airport on its finger of sand, compacted coral laid down by US Seabees in 1942 as part of staging post run to Australia, away from the danger of the Solomons. The first aircraft to land here were B-24 Liberator bombers and in the 1950s, Globemasters on their way to Antartica, via New Zealand. Harewood, Christchurch in fact, where I saw them as a boy of eight or nine, droning overhead with their orange dayglo tails.


On our way back from the cafe, we call in at the airport, where I glean the above information from a display in the tiny terminal; heading out, we stop to talk to the No Sunday Flight protestors with their banners at the entrance, an eight year long fight to silence the skies and keep the Sabbath holy.

No fly Sunday

The afternoon passes reading and then dinner at the flash Pacific Resort down the road. As we enter the dining room, two moko (geckos) fall from the rafters at our feet, and I recall how when we entered the church this morning, one fell on my head – or so it seemed. The only other explanation was that it had crawled into my new Aitutaki cap overnight, lodged between the cardboard lining I’d neglected to remove on buying it, and the material itself. Were these showers of lizards a sign?


Monday is the big lagoon adventure: snorkelling with Teking Tours. We assemble at the wharf for instructions and head out with our pilot and guide Opu and Captain Cook his offsider who we drop off in the shallows near Maina Island; he wades ashore towing an Esky with the food he will prepare for our lunch.


Then it’s off to the first pool to feed the fish and begin snorkelling. I take a while to get used to the facemask and the breathing tube but by the next stop, I’m flippering face down into fish wonderland like a human torpedo. The fish hug the coral as we pass over, just like in a David Attenborough TV series; they are a child’s crazy crayon series of hues, variations of red, yellow, green and blue you could not invent – but someone did.


We head hungry for that meal on the island and feast on a sumptuous range of fish, chicken, steak and local fruits, along with coleslaw and freshly grated coconut, all displayed in giant clam shells. I have never tasted anything and good as this before nor felt the urge to devour it all like a wolf. Unforgettable morning.


Red-tailed Tropic Birds wheel all around us as we eat and their fearless young sit under the trees as we pass, as if this is Eden morning and the creatures do not yet flee at man’s approach. Above them float a squadron of Frigate Birds, soaring and riding the tropic airs with no effort at all, masters of the winds. They cannot land on water, of course, having no oil in their feathers, so they must stay aloft over the seas.


We end the day with a sprint across the lagoon in bucking waters to One Foot Island where you can get your passport stamped – if you bring it. We walk the sandbar to the place where the story goes, a father gave his life for his son by fooling an enemy war party that there was only one person on the island, walking in the boy’s footprints, then hiding him up a tree knowing he would die but his son would live.


Teking Lagoon tours finish with a trip to Akiami where in the 1950s, TEAL Solent flying boats used to land and moor while refuelling for the next leg of the Coral Route. Fabulous sights and tales, the perfect way to crown our penultimate day in Aitutaki.

Planes war

Our final day was just chilling out, postcards, lunch with our dear new friends Ade and Chris, the ideal expatriates: living simply locally, involved in the small but tightly knitted community, “the benevolent prison” that is Aitutaki.


You cannot go far, and you find yourself very soon back where you started; it is hard for the young, Chris says, they really have to go if they want more: Rarotonga, New Zealand, Australia or further. This is the old island story about the outward flow of the locals and the inward tide of tourists like us.


It has had the interesting effect of teaching me I am really a Pacific person and that New Zealand is not a southern outpost of European culture, but of the Pacific. I knew this in my mind of course, but being here in the flesh, in these latitudes and longitudes, I could feel it.


I feel that if we in New Zealand want to have a sense of belonging, it needs to be outward looking, not backward: out to the ocean, out to the sea of islands and the island people, that same map of the world Epeli Hau’ofa wrote of years ago. Meitaki ma’ata e au motu Kuki, kia manuia!






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To Rarotonga

First day in Raro on Island Time. Landed yesterday washed out from lack of sleep to our first “small world” discovery: Te Uira our taxi driver to the Edgewater Resort was in my Māori language class at Canterbury in1998-99 and was taught by Te Rita Papesch. He’s happy to be back home now but wishes there could be more to the economy, now that tourism has taken over.


Roads here (correction, “the road“) are busy with scooters: no helmets, shorts and skirts and jandals on a 50kph limit, so maybe they don’t have too many crashes requiring skin grafts. Little kids hang on to mama, shop girls buzz around with flowered garlands and along the roadside under the coconut palms framing the near vertical mountains, chickens graze. Relaxomatic mode ensues.


Scooter 1a


Had an early night to get up fresh for our first full day, with a trip on the bus to Avarua. The island is certainly ringed with tourist traps, beach hotels and cafes, dive shops, car and scooter rentals, but it looks pretty relaxed with almost nobody passing us all the way. We arrive in the main town after first circling the island’s main traffic feature: a roundabout. Not a red, green or amber light in sight.


After some brunch – coconut pancakes, yum – we head for the old palace where Eruera (Ted) Nia was laid to rest in June. We search for Ettie Rout’s grave in the nearby church but no luck there. Ted’s grave site is unmarked but fresh concrete reveals his resting place. Aere ra, e te rangatira! I say a poroporoaki and we leave him in peace.


On the return bus trip, a different driver who cracks jokes and sings songs entertains us. I guess this will be the only time I ever get to hear a bus driver sing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Time for a swim: these new Warehouse reef shoes feel like moon boots and with my glasses off, the few reef fish seen through goggles look a trifle impressionistic. Off to the market tomorrow.


Wake to discover the All Blacks have thrashed Australia 42-8, so that’s a good start to the day; might be a replay later on the down-home-hardcase local sports channel that feels like its been produced by people who have just walked into a studio. Nice. This morning after breakfast early, we head for the town market at Avarua and catch some real local colour: not a beige anything in sight. Even my compatriot baby boomer tourists with their bad veins and white flabby bodies have come prepared, in colour – kind of.


We cruise the many local stalls selling everything from taro to paua jewelery; grizzled elders kōrero in the local Māori reo as they sit behind the tables stacked with fruit and vegetables, keeping alive a vanishing world. The local paper speaks of a reo endangered as fewer and fewer children are growing up speaking the language. English – swamping the culture with tourists like us – is as usual, the enemy of indigenous identity.


After a shirt and jandal shopping foray, we head back for a coffee at Salsa, where they will feed you on the finest coconut pancakes west of Tahiti. Bacon and banana sweetened with maple syrup: why are our fellow tourists eating scrambled eggs, like you can buy in any cafe in New Zealand?



I have spotted a poster on the window outside Vonnia’s, advertising an exhibition at the National Museum: conch shell carvings by Michel Tuffery and local artists that memorialise the 500 Cook Island soldiers who served with the Māori Pioneer Battalion in the Great War. We walk to the site and find it is closed on Saturdays, followed by a three-legged dog we have picked up in our perambulations. The Cook Island kuri is a ubiquitous, homeless kind of beast that wanders at will, like the chickens.


We head back to Cook’s Corner via the Library and University of the South Pacific: this is where higher education happens after high school. The bus we need to catch – clockwise this time – departs from this famous corner every 30 minutes, servicing the tourist accomodations that ring the island. There is no public transport apart from these rattly buses; few locals use them, preferring their scooters. I find a nice honu (turtle) pendant as a souvenir and compare tatau with the shop assistant: she loves my Pule art work and her whānau design abstracts are superb.


The bus is packed, the window is jammed so no blasts of cool air this trip; we rattle and roar from stop to stop, passengers alight at the well-appointed resorts and spas, sandwiched by the dilapidated homes of the locals, their whanau graves and the dazzling array of churches: SDA, Mormons, Catholic, Pentecostals and Baha’i. Paradise is definitely run by the godly.


Sunday dawns and it’s time for our visit to the CICC church at Arorangi nearby. This was founded initially by LMS missionaries in the 1800s and today, is one of the largest Christian denominations. We board a bus with a dozen other interested parties off for a cultural experience; for us, it’s a normal Sunday in a Māori church.


In this one of course, the dominant language in the local culture – among mature adults at least – is not English. We’re used to a liturgy in Māori back home, but here, with a few genuflections to “our overseas visitors”, they run it their way. We’re ushered to the upstairs seating by a deacon who says cameras are ok, which is great as the colour and the fabrics, the hats and and faces of the people shout life in all its glory.

Church 1.jpg.jpg


There follow prayers, notices, singing, sermons, everything you would expect, but here, it is full of a communal passion I have never experienced before, either in full blast Pentecostalism, or Moravian communities where the whole group can at times seem like one organism, effacing individuals. You literally feel in the singing as if you have entered the throne room of grace.


My fingers burn up image after image on the tiny Lumix LX70 with its massive zoom lens; any other camera would be intrusive, but this classic device is not much bigger than a pack of Rothmans. I can’t wait to share to power and the glory of this church and this people with others. Three hours later, we are still there.


This is because today is a celebration of Cook Island youth and four groups have assembled to recite scripture verses by heart, sing himene, perform skits and generally give it their all, to show the elders they are ready to take on the mantle of evangelism for the next generation. It is encouraging to see they are all Māori speakers.

Church 2


The marathon ends with some of our party having ducked out halfway; expecting an 11.30am finish, we were still in the church at one o’clock. Pity for them that they missed the feast afterwards, as this was a special day and so it was more than a cup of tea. The table was spread with all the best the island could provide and we climbed into the bus for the return journey full to bursting, body soul and spirit.


Monday morning we’re booked on an Eco Cycle tour with Storytellers: Timi our driver and guide is a local man who never wants to live in New Zealand with his parents. His grandparents brought him up and he loves it here where “the loudest noise is the sound of the chickens”.


We pick up Bob, a retired printer from Wanganui, a game retiree with a few tasty views on “the Maoris” back home (he seems unaware that Timi is a relative, since the waka left from here around 1350). We get fitted out for our mountain bikes and head inland on the Ara Metua, into the cultivations of the locals you can’t see easily from the tourism-dominated ring road that hugs the coast and the beaches.


Cycle tour.jpg


Timi takes us on a guided tour of taro, banana, arrowroot and many other local crops, giving us the benefit of his encylopaedic hands-on local knowledge. We discover that the government does not own the land, the people do; there are no fences and title is with ancestral family links; unused land, or that left behind by those who have gone to NZ, is tilled by somebody else.


He’s a warm and generous host and unhurried; we get to the picnic area on the beach a few minutes after noon, to a spread of rice, chicken, prawns and taro chips. Just the best way learn some local history, geography and share time with a Cook Island man who is happy to stay right here. His kids will go to Auckland for high school, where their grandparents live, thirty years after leaving. Not Timi: “the noise drives me crazy, I only stay one week”. We can see why now.


Tuesday the plan is to hire scooters and do some exploration on the back road and some other sites. Problem is, the rain has set in and it means get wet and scoot, or hire a car. Both being slightly mad, we opt to scoot and so get two Honda Lead 100cc autos from Tipani Hire, $20 a day, magic. Heading through Arorangi to Rutaki, southeast, the tropical rain sets in and along the coast, exposed to the sea, it feels like we might get blown off.


No way back now, we stop sopping at Te Maire Nui Gardens and with hot coffee, regroup. We cut our garden tour short and head back on the main road for Muri where the rich cats are sleeping still, and stop at the departure point of the waka that sailed to Aotearoa. Too wet and cold to tarry, time for a brief mihi to those hero migrants who are the ancestors of our many friends back home.


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We dogleg west to the inner road and all seems well until Jeanette is struck down by headache from nowhere that proves disabling. It’s all she can do to stay upright and slowly, we head for the National Museum in Avarua where we planned to visit the Michel Tuffery exhibition of carved mother of pearl shells that are a memorial to the Kuki Airani soldiers of WW1.


The kind museum worker sees our problem immediately and provides water and paracetamol to get us to a point where I can take Jeanette on pillion back to the resort and come back for her scooter later. I do a quick recce of the exhibition while she recovers: the backlit carved shells with the faces of the soldiers are stunning, archetypes, demi-gods, each with their own special feature.


Many have a flower behind their ear and a lemon squeezer hat; some have shovels (for trenching and tunneling); others rifles with bayonets, gas masks and all the accoutrements of modern war. They look Homeric in their eternally fixed gazes, men who left a paradise of sorts to visit hells of slaughter, fighting for a King whose principal contribution to their lives was to conquer them first.


We manage to get ourselves back to base two-up so the patient can rest in the dark, managing the pain as best she knows, until later in the day, it lifts enough for us to continue. We visit the wonderful work at Pacific Weave where an artist from Penrhyn has opened up a new store. Amazing shell and fibre work that calls out for a home, the kind of skill and beauty you can take with you that is a level above the regulation tourist tat.




We end the day with a tuna feast at the legendary Tamarind House, navigating there and back two up on the wee Honda in the rain and the dark. This would have to be the best restaurant so far, with Oceans a close second. Chunks of yellowfin in curry for me, while Jeanette goes for a tuna steak, finished off with a shared coconut ice cream.


Writing about what one has eaten – unless you are a restaurant critic – is not ideal, it seems somehow unkind, as if inviting friends to a feast and refusing them food. Last night here finished off with a marathon dream which carried on in my head as it woke me. I was giving an off the cuff presentation about Tutakangahau and Elsdon Best. It almost felt like the two of them came into the room.


Church hat.jpg




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Social bonds and the rentier economy: how neoliberalism keeps boiling the frog unto death.


Two happy servants of inequality: John Key and Bill English at the cutting edge.


Listening to Bill English today in his role as Minister Responsible for Housing New Zealand Corporation and Finance Minister extolling the virtues of “social bonds”, one could almost be forgiven for missing the euphemistic wiliness of these two warm fuzzy words, so nicely linked: social, yes, bonds, yes. What’s not to like? Anything that promotes the closer bonding of society has to be good, doesn’t it?

Well, as we all know, when English says something like this in relation to what was formerly the State Housing Corporation’s stock of homes for all New Zealanders, it means privatization by stealth. Or maybe, not so stealthy: English is quite open, if we listen in stating that the private sector, including philanthropists, will be invited to invest in government housing stock and projects with the promise of a return on that investment.

There’s a lot surplus capital out there looking for such opportunities, he tells us and what could better than these private-public partnerships where those who have already creamed off large surpluses from the common weal are looking to increase their share? Yes. That’s right: this is an attraction to the rich, to get richer. It is not designed to benefit the next generation of New Zealanders looking to buy a property and avoid a life of servitude, paying over half their shrunken incomes to landlords and property investors. This is National, once more, carrying on where Labour left off (no pun intended) where the Rogernomes of the 1980s started: selling the state to the highest bidder.

Do you sometimes get the feeling that we are living in an altered reality where the obvious is avoided and PR machines make history so malleable it hardly seems to matter anymore? The obvious, to me, being that this housing stock was paid for by preceding generations of taxpayers, who since 1935 set out with the then Labour government to banish the exact situation we see returning now: the poorest of the poor denied work, health and housing by a ruthless self-interested international financial system that had collapsed under its own weight and brought the world down with it.

I don’t want this rising generation to face the re-run of history currently being played out by the activities of rentier pirates, those buying housing stock from under the noses of the poorest paid members of society and then selling that space back to them for their own profit. This is exactly what is happening in South Auckland, as a recent post on a Radio Live Website points out: since 2001, the already low level of home ownership in this area (31%) has dropped into the low twenties and is declining. Strugglers working for peanuts are being forced by absentee landlords to pay up to 65% of their already sparse income just for rent.

Instead of undertaking a massive refit and building programme for state housing, using public funds, National under Key and English is preparing the “market” for more investors to take out a profit from human need – the need and the right to adequate forms of housing within their ability to pay. Germany does, the Scandinavian countries and many others in Europe manage this mental feat quite easily: a housed, healthy, educated and gainfully employed citizenry is far more likely to be stable, productive and integrated.

Instead, what do we have? Amongst the highest levels of inequality in the OECD, massive house price inflation, McJobs that can’t keep anyone on the income they provide and a health system that increasingly operates by bumping the needy off waiting lists. The idea that making housing attractive to another group of investors is the way ahead, is like pouring petrol on a fire that is already out of control.

As for the idea that philanthropists could get involved, hullo: Charles Dickens, anybody? The workhouse, charity, the poorhouse – all those evils, the medievalisms that the welfare state arose through blood and sweat to rid us of – wait in the wings of this kind of thinking. The American author Stephen King was roasted by the rich when he went public a few years ago, saying the rich like him should pay higher taxes. The Tea Party-ites were quick to savage him: “Hey, if you want to help the poor, write a cheque!”  “I’m rich, tax me!”

King was just as quick to point out that he didn’t live in a universe where individual donations ran complex modern societies: governments had a right and a duty to raise taxes for the public good.”What some of us want,” he ripostes, “is for you to acknowledge that you couldn’t have made it in America without America!” Pay your share, in other words, and enough of the tax havens and offshore trusts.

Back here, the last thing we need in this country is having the lowest paid workers dependent on philanthropic investment by the rich, in order to get into housing. As for Anne Tolley and the prospect of social bonds being applied to welfare agencies, that has to be the bottom of the barrel. Social policy over the past thirty years – privatisation, deregulation, monetization of every cultural activity – has created that same underpaid, overcharged  underclass who now, it is proposed, will have their ills cured by more of the same.

What we need in fact, is a Bernie Sanders type of figure, a leader from the left who is not afraid to speak the love that dare not say its name: socialism, the types of policies which put people before profit and regulate financial markets, tax dodging corporations, tax havens and all other the other shady instruments by which the top 1% screw the rest of us. Of course Key will leap up to the microphone and accuse whoever that might be of being “barking mad”. He has to, it is in his interests to promote the system I am attacking, as he is a part of it, one of its products and benefactors. One of us? Give me a break.

Me, I’m more than happy to live and work in a mixed economy where the government and private enterprise take a fair and democratic share of the load; but when I turn on the radio and hear Bill English declare that more of the same is coming down the line, I have to declare that I no longer recognize people like him or John Key as representing anything a sane mind could possibly believe in, or vote for.



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Viva Nicaragua! Viva la poesia!

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On the streets of Granada, Nicaragua, life pours out its riches.

For the space of one glorious week, 14-20 February 2016, I found myself with a bevy of poets at the centre of a cultural event unique I believe in this world: the Nicaraguan International Poetry Festival, the twelfth year this amazing celebration of poets and poetry has been running. For someone who comes from a country where poetry is a ghetto event at the public level, where even in the literary and arts festivals which are run by and for the elite of the country’s literati and their followers, poets for the most part play a support role in a minor key, this was like landing in heaven.

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Francisco Leal of Chile waits to read outside the Church of La Merced on the first night.

For me to feel, for once, that poetry mattered – that it could be public event energising a whole city, a community and a people – left me thinking that when it comes to being Third World in the Arts, in the democracy of letters, we in the West qualify on all points of the compass. Of course, there was an elite group running and sponsoring the event while on the fringes, real poverty was apparent in what the street vendors were hawking under our noses as we ate our breakfasts on the verandah of the Alhambra Hotel, facing out onto the Plaza de la Independencia.

Even so, the street parade on the second day – where a funeral was held to “bury negativity” – saw every inch of the route that stopped on all of the inner city’s street corners for poetry read from the back of a truck, packed with crowds of locals cheering and laughing as the black horse-drawn hearse  made its way along, pursued by the Devil, the Grim Reaper and his minions snatching at bystanders while school children hunted down every poeta they could find, for autographs.

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One of my helpers, the immaculately attired Eddy wants a photo with this poeta.

There are a number of reasons why this state of affairs exists in Nicaragua and in many other Central and South American countries: some I’m aware of and many I’m not. Certainly the bloody colonial histories of Spanish conquest, the troubled succession of multiple dictators and despots, the arrival of nineteenth and twentieth century American capitalism and its brutal support of these tyrants all helped to propel poetry into the public arena from the age of Ruben Dario and his modernismo, throwing off classical Spanish models, through the revolts of Sandino and later, his descendants the sandinistas who overthrew and repulsed the Somoza dictator dynasty through the 1970s and ’80s, even as the exiled tyrant with American support tried to turn the clock back in a vicious civil war that mired the Reagan presidency in the Iran-Contra scandal. Poets were the voice of the people and the resistance: they spoke from out of them and to them, in a manner of which we have virtually no knowledge in the West today.

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A boy runs past a table of poets reading in La Plaza de la Independencia, Granada.

Even when the local poets read, you could see and feel a difference: there was a passion and a power in the delivery of the Latino and Spanish-speaking writers that lit up their performance in a manner that would, I believe make many Western audiences uncomfortable. We have grown used to confessing and confiding, distrusting declarations and wincing at the presence of what seems rhetorical. I had had translations done on my three poems and sat back to listen to the reading; would they be seized upon and declared, or whispered ear-to-ear as I had grown used to speaking them?

I was granted a young woman, Kenya, a soft-spoken 20-something of tiny stature who looked like she was 13 years old, yet read with a quiet confidence and maturity that really suited what I’d given Marcel my translator to decode. Given less than 24 hours notice, he managed to produce versions of three poems in English, sight-unseen beforehand in the midst of a flurry of other calls upon his time. These young people were amazing: nothing seemed to be too much trouble as they waited upon us with respect and politeness. I salute their memory now, and always will.

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Kenya reading the Spanish translation of As Big As A Father.

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Marcel, my translator, reading one of his own.

Part of me knows I may never return to this amazing country; part of me is aware I only saw and experienced a fraction of its realities and its challenges. To have been welcomed here as a poet among poets, to have met and shared ideas with other writers from Italy to Australia, to have listened to Spanish I could not understand but to have felt its liquid gold pour down on my head like the anointing oil on Aaron’s beard, to have seen the living legend, a 91-year-old Ernesto Cardenal and heard him read, seeing him mobbed and kissed and revered, is to have known the word made flesh in such a way that I can’t quite ever be the same again: viva Nicaragua! Viva la poesia!

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Reading As Big As A Father in La Plaza de la Independencia.

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Hubris as Nemesis: is this John Key’s fall, beginning?




TPPA Protests, Auckland. Photo: Stuart Page Photography.

My good friend Patrick Evans remarked to me 18 months ago that he could not see John Key’s nemesis on the horizon, the one who would bring him down.

He noted how when Norman Kirk appeared for Labour in the early ’70s, a tired 3-term National was doomed; the same applied when Muldoon followed and did for Bill Rowling; David Lange for Muldoon in 1984; then Key for an out-of-touch Helen Clark in 2007.

None of the leftwing opponents of Key have been able to burst his bubble so far; yet perhaps he is right now doing that himself? The flag fiasco and the scornful TPPA signing in Auckland this week, along with his backdown on going to Te Tii Marae for Waitangi Day speak to me of a man who is finally misreading a wider national mood.

He doesn’t get that opponents of the TPPA are not his imaginary ‘rent-a-mob haters’, but thousands of ordinary New Zealanders who feel patronised and plain lied-to.

The anti-flag change camp (of which I am a member) has now linked the two: sovereignty and trade help to define identity more than does a branding exercise, because who we are is in some large part what we can do about it. If we lose power over our destiny, we give up the freedom to make our own kinds of community.

Helen Clark misread the meaning of the Foreshore and Seabed protests and wrote the hikoi off as spun by ‘haters and wreckers’. She preferred to greet a straggler sheep of media inanity. Hubris: the kind Key is now displaying.

The man who challenged Andrew Little to “get some guts” in relation to sending troops to Iraq can’t find enough in himself, to stand on his mana and that of the office and go to Waitangi. I sense his fall has now begun.


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