Sunday, 14 June 2015

Once Upon A Time I Knew What To Do

Looking through some old files, I came across the feature I mentioned writing here, back in the days when life was interesting.

It wasn't as bad as I remembered so, while it's nice and quiet round these parts, I thought I'd give it a run out. I've ironed out a few of the kinks and reinserted a couple of things cut for the sake of the word count.

It did get published in the paper, by the way, but they never paid me for it, so fuck em.

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“Are you from the council?”

A man in khaki work shorts, a matching shirt and muddy boots is striding towards me. He is carrying a leaf blower and slipped over his gardener’s uniform is a fluorescent orange high-visibility vest. The vest is the same colour as the graffiti, sprayed across a holly hedge, I am photographing.

No, I reply – I am just taking pictures. He squints suspiciously. The Otepuni Gardens are beautiful, I say, and I often come here with my camera. I saw this graffiti today and, well. When did it appear?

“Overnight,” he says. “Someone’s gone right along this block and Block One spraying all over everything. I can’t believe it. I thought you were from the council. I told them about it this morning. I thought, they’ve come quick”. He grimaces.

We chat. He introduces himself as Anthony. He’s worked in the gardens for four years. Loves them to bits. Gets very frustrated by the mindless destruction he has to deal with. His dark eyes glint as we talk.

Some idiots ride their bikes through the flower beds, he tells me. People start fires. Chuck things in the water. Road cones, traffic signs. And he’s had to replace two lots of annual beds after people came along and ripped all the flowers up just for fun.

 “Morons,” he says, shaking his head wearily. “I just don’t understand some people. These gardens are piece of history.”

This is true. The Otepuni Gardens, the 8.3 hectare public reserve nestled behind Tay St’s main drag, is Invercargill’s oldest park.

One hundred and fifty years ago the Otepuni creek snaked a wandering course through open country dotted with tussock, flax and shrubs, described by surveyor Frederick Tuckett in 1844 as "a mere bog and unfit for habitation". Undeterred, the area's first European settler, John Kelly, built his whare by the creek where Clyde St now stands. Soon, others joined him.

Rowboats came up from the Waihopai estuary to put passengers and goods ashore. Local Māori stopped for a cook-up on their way to and from the fertile mahinga kai around Sandy Point. The waterway was the heart of a growing township.

Crown surveyor John Turnbull Thomson thought so too. The undistinguished stream became the backbone of his grand plan to impose municipal order on marshland. In 1857, with a few strokes of his pen, he created Invercargill, and declared the land on either side of the creek, from Clyde St to Elles Rd, to be the official town gardens.

Horticulturally, nothing happened for a while. Then in 1872 the council offered a £20 prize to the person who could come up with the best design for a formal garden for the municipal reserve. This extravagant use of public funds prompted a series of heated letters to The Southland Times.

A correspondent calling himself Senex wrote on May 3, 1872, “I venture to say, nothing that will prove permanently attractive or in any way worth the bonus [will be] offered for its design.”

Yet with admirable foresight, he went on to say “The garden must be protected from sudden and also gradual rising of the creek, and therefore a very considerable slope will have to be effected on each side.”

A gentleman named Zanoni replied “Senex is wrong from beginning to finish.”

A further correspondent, writing under the name of Recreation, stated “The creek must be straightened... and when once straightened the land will seldom be flooded as it is often now... A well-directed expenditure in fencing these blocks, forming walks, and laying down portions in grass, cannot fail to be anything but a general good, and need not absorb all the revenue.”

Senex retorted, “I would ask how a generally sluggish and all but stagnant stream… can be particularly ornamental? I have set the ball rolling, and now believe the Council will not now throw away the public money on the Puni creek project.”

Misplaced confidence: the gripes were ignored. James Moreton, a North Road florist, won the £20 and a borough gardener was sought to implement the design.

Scotsman Thomas Waugh got the job, and immediately began to whip the gardens into shape. Seeds and cuttings were ordered from Wellington and Christchurch; the creek was straightened and the old stream bed filled in. Tussocks were cleared. In their place Waugh planted eucalypts, conifers, pines, macrocarpa. He laid out paths and borders to Moreton’s plans. Installed a nursery garden, a conservatory, a pond. Worked so hard for his salary of seven shillings and sixpence a day that when he dropped down dead in 1896, his obituary blamed overwork.

Yes. But the gardens looked magnificent.

Successive town gardeners augmented his efforts. Waugh’s replacement, Henry Edginton, put down 4000 trees and shrubs. His successor, James McPherson, planted 6000 bulbs along the banks of the stream. In 1933, Paddy Mansfield installed the poplar avenue in Block Three, filled in the pond, built an aviary, and created an alpine garden.

“Mr Mansfield was noted for his lavish displays of annual and herbaceous plants,” says the council’s Otepuni Gardens Town Belt (B) Management Plan 1995-2005. The management plan also notes that “even during those early years, there were problems with groups loitering in the Gardens and annoying citizens passing through.”

When the band rotunda was built in 1920, the gardens became a popular place to gather. Electric street lighting was installed in an effort to curb vandalism. Policemen patrolled the gardens at night, alert for undue carousing. It’s a different story these days.

“Otepuni Gardens are not what you’d call a problem area for us,” says Inspector Olaf Jensen, of Invercargill. “Isolated incidents, and vehicles broken into sometimes.”

What about vandalism?

“We don’t patrol this area, so unless a member of the public calls our attention to something going on, we don’t know about it.”

It costs the current council about $50,000 a year to fix the mess caused by louts, Invercargill city council parks manager Robin Pagan says.

“On parks alone we’re spending at least $25,000 if not more on vandalism-type things,” Pagan tells me from behind the desk of his Queens Park office, where a small plastic tuatara is perched on the edge of his computer keyboard.

“Litter, graffiti, things being chucked in the creek. Broken trees. Some people seem to take joy in lifting the paving blocks. They pick them up and chuck them in the creek. It’s hard to know why.”

The Otepuni Gardens became neglected after McPherson decided they were too small and cramped to carry on being the chief public garden of Invercargill and shifted his attention to the bigger, flashier Queens Park, Pagan explains.

“It all got transferred – the aviary, parks office, works yard. It’s more central here; more room, and less problems. It floods down there. Three, maybe four, times a year someone would have to rush in in the middle of the night and lift mowers up out of the water and do all sorts of things. So it wasn’t the best.”

Flooding. It seems everyone but the council had anticipated the havoc the generally sluggish stream might cause.

It was no secret the 'Puni had a habit of bursting its banks after heavy rainfall. High tides in the estuary regularly flooded the gardens too. A combination of these factors could cause disaster. And it did. On Valentines Day 1940, the Otepuni Gardens and its surrounding streets disappeared under several feet of murky water.

The Southland Daily News lamented the ruin of the gardens’ summer display. “Shrubs, hedges and trees showed their dripping heads disconsolately above the floodwaters”, it reported. The potato crop put in under the direction of the city council was destroyed. Islington St, it said, “looked like Venice without the gondolas”.

It also identified the cause of the floods. “The stream has within recent years been straightened, and this has permitted the faster flow of water from the higher reaches.” But nothing was done. It happened again. The 1984 floods were a repeat of 1940, and some.

Stopbanks, dams, and updated stormwater systems were hastily installed, and finally the stream started to behave itself. The new stopbanks encircled and enclosed the gardens, altering their look and feel. After decades languishing in Queens Park's shadow, something of a renaissance followed.

“The gardens started being used a lot more,” Pagan says. “They had a bit of privacy about them, I suppose.”

Suddenly, Otepuni Gardens was a popular venue. Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum came to town to film parts of the 1989 made-for-TV movie The Brotherhood of the Rose there. 1995 saw the advent of Cherrystock, the free summer music festival touted as Invercargill’s answer to The Big Day Out. It ran in the gardens for five years.

In winter, the gardens hosted Southland Regional Council science and technology fairs. Families enjoyed electric fishing, water sampling demonstrations, and whitebaiting. At the 1997 event, the deputy mayor and 251 other brave souls walked barefoot over hot coals. (This, The Southland Times noted, was 20 fewer than the previous year.)

In 2001, Block Two was the venue for the inaugural Shakespeare in the Park. Venture Southland’s Angela Newell fulfilled a lifelong dream to stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream under the weeping elm next to the sundial.

“I used to bike through there on my way to school,” she explains. “I always thought it would be perfect for it.”

It was. About a thousand people came, she recalls, and an Invercargill tradition was born.

But Shakespeare in the Park never went back to the Otepuni Gardens, and the science fairs, music festivals and film crews are a distant memory.

Vandals aside, the gardens are mostly deserted these days: a shortcut, and not much else.

Parks division office administrator Heather Guise blames the liquor ban. “You can’t do anything there now.” Bookings for 2009 extended to the Southern Institute of Technology’s orientation week activities, an Easter egg hunt, a Matariki hikoi (using the gardens only because the council wouldn’t give permission for it to go through town), and three weddings, she says. There is a “tentative” booking for a wedding next year.

“It’s not very popular,” she surmises.

Invercargill’s oldest park will just have to wait and hope for people to remember why it exists.

“We see the Otepuni Gardens as an important corridor, a pleasant way to go if you’re going to work,” Pagan says. “They’re basically just historical now. They’re almost the forgotten gardens, aren’t they?”

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[all photos: © me]

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Already Loss

"Was I cowardly not to want to explore the farther reaches of consciousness, afraid of getting lost, of being unable to return? I had been on my own since I turned seventeen, and that early independence made me old: I was never sure anyone would pick up the pieces if I fell apart, and I thought of consequences. The young live absolutely in the present, but a present of drama and recklessness, of acting on urges and running with the pack. They bring the fearlessness of children to acts with adult consequences, and when something goes wrong they experience the shame or the pain as an eternal present too. Adulthood is made up of a prudent anticipation and a philosophical memory that make you navigate more slowly and steadily. But fear of making mistakes can itself become a huge mistake, one that prevents you from living, for life is risky and anything less is already loss."

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide To Getting Lost

Saturday, 10 January 2015


Actual thing that actually happened* in a Russell Group university library NEAR YOU:

PUNTER: [approaches information desk] Help me I have no idea how to do this thing.

ME: What thing?

PUNTER: This thing which is a straightforward web based research task complete with step by step instructions printed out on this piece of paper I am holding.

ME: Have you read the step by step instructions?


ME: Perhaps you could read the step by step instructions?

PUNTER: I am not able to read the step by step instructions at this time because the piece of paper containing the straightforward web based research task has been in my bag since before Christmas and now the straightforward web based research task is due in on Monday and also I have been in the library for many hours already and I am very tired.

ME: I see. [reads step by step instructions]. It says to log into the website the step by step instructions advise you to log into in the first step by step instruction.

PUNTER: This is all terribly difficult. I have not read the step by step instructions. I do not know what this website is.

ME: [opens website, passes mouse and keyboard to punter] Here is the website. Now all you have to do is search for the thing it tells you to search for in the second step by step instruction.

PUNTER: I literally have no idea how to search for a word or phrase using a search box.

ME: You type the word or phrase into the search box which is there. [points to search box]

PUNTER: I see. [clicks various random links] Where is the information I need? How am I meant to complete this straightforward web based research task?

ME: You type the word or phrase into the search box which is there. [points to search box]

PUNTER: [types vague keyword into search box, clicks on first result] This result here is exactly the result I am looking for.

ME: I am afraid the step by step instructions say the result needs to be about X, but that result is about Y.

PUNTER: You are correct. [clicks on second result] What about this result?

ME: I am afraid that result again is about Y. Perhaps you could alter the search term, for example as per the step by step instructions printed on the piece of paper that is in front of you, to include X. Maybe then you will be able to find the information you need to complete this straightforward web based research task.

PUNTER: [repeats earlier steps five or ten or fifteen or eleventy thousand times]

ME: [contemplates murder]

PUNTER: [resumes clicking on random links]

ME: The step by step instructions there by your hand, right next to it actually, the hand that is at the end of your arm that is, tell you exactly what you need to do to find the information you need to complete this straightforward web based research task.

[Punter reads instructions. Time stretches into infinity, possibly stops]

PUNTER: It is impossible. [shakes head sadly] I cannot find what I need to complete this straightforward web based research task.

ME: Would you like me to have a go?


ME: [finds required information instantly]


ME: Yes.

* paraphrased slightly

Friday, 2 January 2015

A Good Year For The Proses

At the start of 2014, I decided I would try to read 100 books over the course of the year.

Unfortunately, real life got in the way (how rude) so I only managed to read 60.

Here they are:

1. The Grass Is Singing - Doris Lessing
2. Worthless Men - Andrew Cowan
3. The Examined Life - Stephen Grosz
4. Diana: The Making of a Media Saint - Jeffrey Richards/Scott Wilson/Linda Woodhead (eds)
5. The BFG - Roald Dahl
6. Matilda - Roald Dahl
7. I Capture The Castle - Dodie Smith
8. Anne Frank and the Children of the Holocaust - Carol Ann Lee
9. The Guardian Columns 1998-2000 - Julie Burchill
10. A Street Cat Named Bob - James Bowen
11. Child Abuse and Neglect: Attachment, Development and Intervention - David Howe
12. A Place Of My Own - Michael Pollan
13. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim - David Sedaris
14. The Reason I Jump - Naoki Higashida
15. The Laws of Simplicity - John Maeda
16. A Brief History of Britain 1485-1660 - Ronald Hutton
17. The Missing - Andrew O'Hagan
18. Journalism: Right and Wrong - Ian Mayes
19. The Disappearance of Childhood - Neil Postman
20. There Is Nothing Wrong With You - Cheri Huber
21. Zealot - Reza Aslan
22. Georgian London: Into The Streets - Lucy Inglis
23. 3096 Days - Natascha Kampusch
24. The Omnivore's Dilemma - Michael Pollan
25. Do No Harm - Henry Marsh
26. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work - Alain de Botton
27. The Witches - Roald Dahl
28. Here Is New York - E. B. White
29. Charlotte's Web - E. B. White
30. Frank - Jon Ronson
31. Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
32. Touching From A Distance - Deborah Curtis
33. Motherless Daughters - Hope Edelman
34. Romany and Tom - Ben Watt
35. Brighton Rock - Graham Greene
36. Gut Feelings - Gerd Gigerenzer
37. The Kenneth Williams Diaries - Russell Davies (ed)
38. Hyperbole and a Half - Allie Brosh
39. Of Mice And Men - John Steinbeck
40. Shit My Dad Says - Justin Halpern
41. Man's Search For Meaning - Viktor E. Frankl
42. To The Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf
43. In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile - Dan Davies
44. Rock Stars Stole My Life - Mark Ellen
45. Travels In The Scriptorium - Paul Auster
46. Elizabeth Is Missing - Emma Healey
47. Towards Another Summer - Janet Frame
48. Animal Farm - George Orwell
49. Open Secrets - Alice Munro
50. A Childhood - Jona Oberski
51. Chavs - Owen Jones
52. Switch - Chip and Dan Heath
53. The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned A Million Pounds - John Higgs
54. Rupert Brooke: His Life and Legend - John Lehmann
55. Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
56. The Society of Timid Souls - Polly Marland
57. Skating to Antarctica - Jenny Diski
58. Harry's Last Stand - Harry Leslie Smith
59. We Learn Nothing - Tim Kreider
60. The Brain Is Wider Than The Sky - Bryan Appleyard

Some were attempts to catch up on actual proper literature and childhood classics I never read; one or two of the slimmer volumes were pure filler. Almost all were quality books, well worth reading, and lovely, lovely Twitter drew my attention to a significant number of these.

(Lovely, lovely Twitter also ate up a thousand billion what-could-have-been-reading hours, but that's another story.)

There were others, too, that I either gave up on or didn't have time for. Iain Sinclair fell by the wayside, as did The Secret Garden. I never got round to Lost At Sea or My Ear At His Heart or The Thirty Nine Steps or A Million Miles in a Thousand Years or even Philip Larkin's Collected Poems. Maybe this year. I will just add them to my 2015 'To Read' list, which in two short days has already accrued six items. Can we have more hours in the day, more days in the week please?

If it's recommendations you're after, glancing at the notebook I jotted the titles down in I see that A Place of My Own (Michael Pollan), Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (David Sedaris), Romany and Tom (Ben Watt), and The Kenneth Williams Diaries all had little hearts drawn after their entries.

Skating to Antarctica (Jenny Diski) had a little heart WITH LINES EMANATING FROM IT. With hindsight, Romany and Tom should have had this too. It melted me.

We Learn Nothing (Tim Kreider) had a little heart with a smiley face inside. (Here is some Kreider for the uninitiated: A Man and His Cat. Delicious stuff.)

The Omnivore's Dilemma (Michael Pollan) just had a smiley face, but on the basis of that and the heart A Place of My Own earned I feel I must now read everything this man has ever written.

Janet Frame's Towards Another Summer was so devastatingly good a heart or a smiley face couldn't begin to cover it: it got a small circle of radiating lines, a speechless gasp of starstruck admiration.

I read The Examined Life (Stephen Grosz) twice before I handed it back to the library, which is also a recommendation I suppose. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim was a re-read too, because David Sedaris is the eighth wonder of the world. 2015 is the year I devour his back catalogue: bring it on.

Unbelievably, John Higg's wonderful, mischievious book on The KLF didn't get a heart, a smiley face or a gasp: I regret this oversight.

My copy of Frank was, of course, signed by the author♡     ☼   ✿ 

PS All but a handful of the 60 titles came from the public library. If you haven't already, please consider signing your local 'Save Our Library' petition - there's bound to be one. Libraries are precious things.