Birdacious Birthday

It started with the installation of a bird feeder made of up-cycled materials…

This ingenious piece of engineering by my brother-in-law and nephew, consists of a cast iron industrial lamp (we think) inverted on a cut-down pole. It has been rust-proofed and varnished. Concreted in, it is here to stay and looks magnificent against the autumn colours of the wisteria. In the early morning when the sun hits it, water vapour rises from the dew-wet metal. We thought it might take a week or two for the birds to get used to it, but they have taken no time to discover the crusts of bread while the chooks, unconcerned, remain grounded below.

It continued with bird-themed gifts:

I’m feeling very spoiled and continue to be entertained by the birds visiting the feeder and by these amazing books about chicken-obsessed people. This Chicken Life is Australian and there are some horrendous accounts of fox attacks. Thank goodness we don’t have foxes in New Zealand to add to our introduced pest woes. “Like coconut on a lamington, they’re all over Australia…introduced between the 1840s and the 1870s by a conga line of utter muppets…keen to indulge in the ‘noble sport of fox-hunting’.” I worry when the chooks get into the front garden that an illegally off-the-lead dog will get them – which happened to friends’ chickens in Dunedin. The Australian patois of the book is very funny and also hits the spot about the worries of chook ownership. After a fox attack, and a period of grieving, you are advised: “…when you miss the gentle susurration of chickens bok-bok-bokking in the garden, you pull up your big farmer undies and go to the poultry auction and buy more chickens”.

I enjoyed a Genesis Energy power shout (free electricity for 8 hours) on my birthday; turned up the heat pump, auto-cleaned the oven and made spicy buns.

Me in my puffin pinny putting the buns in the sun to rise.

In the evening there was spicy chocolate birthday cake, a family favourite recipe, with coffee icing and walnut sprinkles, expertly baked and decorated by my sister.

So, here I am, an old age pensioner at last and feeling quite mature! GoldCard, new driver’s licence, flu shot. All set.

“Uriah Heep’s loose on the ninth floor…”

I read The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by H.G. Parry on the Kindle app on my ipad – my favourite bookshop was shut during lockdown – but I would like to have a “real” copy of it to dip into again more easily. I expected the book to be like the Jasper Fforde series which began with The Eyre Affair, in which a literary detective’s work is to put escaped characters back into their books. It is funny and fantastical by warping our known world, but The Unlikely Escape is different, superimposing or layering fiction on our “real” world. You laugh one moment and catch your breath the next.

The quotation above (reminiscent of ‘there’s a kangaroo loose in the top paddock’) comes from the first page when Rob’s brother, Charley, telephones him in the middle of the night from the university English department with a plea for help. Charley has summoned Uriah Heep out of David Copperfield and he does not want to be read back in. To remind you what Uriah is like, I found this audio of Dickens (really?) reading the part where David Copperfield meets Uriah for the first time.

In an interview with Kim Hill, the author said she chose the name Uriah Heep for the title as it is a name likely to be familiar to potential readers of the book. He is not the only character on the loose. There’s Heathcliff (with lethal weaponry), Sherlock Holmes and Dr Frankenstein (each called on for advice), Dorian Gray (expert internet hacker), Scheherazade (continually shelving in the bookshop) and various others.

I was surprised to find that H.G. Parry is a NZ author (but not surprised that she has a PhD in literature) and that the setting of her book is Wellington. To explain why I was surprised, the fictional characters who are on the loose are from Victorian to Regency English literature mainly. There are Dickens characters, and Austen and Wilde characters, as well as a fictional (i.e. made up by H.G. Parry) girl detective, from the twenties or thirties, I think. She’s a bit of a Jacinda Ardern type of character: forthright, moral and pragmatic, carefully negotiating her way around the tricky coalition of characters as she takes the lead. The particular setting is not that relevant really, as the book is about reading and how the characters we read about can inform our own lives. Perhaps, as it is the capital city, there is an implication about how we govern ourselves, settle scores and lead the way… The local references: Maui and Mahy are both internationally known, and this book is for an international market.

The book is a blast, particularly if you have studied literature and literary criticism, but just as much if you are aware of the vagaries of human nature and the different ways in which we can invent and re-invent ourselves, or if you have seen the various interpretations of the classics in tv series and film. As an example, there are five Darcys – each evidence of different ways in which readers have interpreted the character. One looks like Colin Firth. They share a house in a lane off Cuba Street. The lane is only accessible to other fictional characters (a bit like the train platform in the Harry Potter books), but it is under threat and this provides tension and action in the plot. One character is The Implied Reader who has an indistinct face. An Implied Author turns up at one point, and even Charles Dickens.

The plot is held together by a variety of contrasts and conflicts. Mainly, it is the story of two brothers. One is a 26 year old prodigy and academic who can summon fictional characters from books. The other (the first person narrator for much of the book) is a criminal defence lawyer who has almost always looked out for his younger brother. Now, he is called on to confront the family secret while hiding it from his partner, Lydia, and to take his support of his brother to a dangerous level. Uriah Heep becomes significant here as a foil to David Copperfield. I read a Guardian article which said these two characters “are a fork in the road”. Which brings up the question of how fair an author is in creating characters to make a point – Uriah Heep is perhaps justifiably aggrieved! A similar question arises as Charley and a rival summoner fight over which fictional world to impose on the real life city. So it is about academic rivalry as well. Or meeting one’s arch-nemesis. Is it imperative to impose one potentially limiting interpretation or to allow the many manifestations of fictional characters? The book argues for the latter.

The book is about how we read, whether or not we read, how much importance we give to the creative imagination and how powerful it can be in our lives. Margret Mahy’s The Lion in the Meadow is a recurring reference. I remember reading that there were two endings to Mahy’s story, and it is discussed in the book. The writer – and consequently the reader – suffers by repressing the imagination is the point made. And so in the end, as in Mahy’s book, the dragon remained “and nobody minded”. The Unlikely Escape finishes (slight spoiler alert – this book is about far more than the ending) with the once occasional reader, Rob, engrossed in Great Expectations at home by the fire with his brother Charley (reading The Princess Bride) and Sherlock Holmes (reading Agatha Christie) “And for a moment, the space between heartbeats, I felt I could glimpse the world Charley saw. A world of light and shadows, of fact, truth and story, each blurring into one another as sleep and wakefulness blur in the early morning. The moments of our lives unfolding as pages in a book. And everything connected, everyone joined, by an ever-shifting web of language, by words that caught us as prisms caught light and reflected us back at ourselves. ‘We changed again, and yet again,’ I read, ‘and it was now too late and too far to go back, and I went on. And the mists had all solemnly risen now, and the world lay spread before me.'”

I’ve enjoyed the thinking this book has allowed me days after finishing it.


Being retired felt sparkly and new; full of promise. But now that we’re all retired, more or less, the shine has gone off it. After three months, and with winter approaching, would it have seemed less of an adventure anyway?

I was excited about my daily craft book, was ready to get my paperwork in order – such as renewing my driver’s licence – and had begun to keep a journal to record the turmoil of retirement. All of these have pretty much lapsed.

I promised myself the delights of movies and tv shows I’d missed while working and have enjoyed some of these on Kanopy (some funny French movies) and TVNZ OnDemand (Girlfriends – very exciting and funny), but mostly I prefer to watch tv shows about gardening or house restoration on Living and QI on UKTV.

Radio has proved to be a good companion. Favourites include Jim Mora’s Sunday morning show and Jesse Mulligan’s Afternoons. The BBC Friday Comedy is a podcast I have followed for some time. It’s especially apt at the moment, recorded from the comedians’ homes and with no studio audience laughing at every joke. I like to listen to In Our Time or Woman’s Hour to occupy my mind while cleaning the bathroom or doing other mundane tasks.

I seem to have drifted into playing Patience. On my phone and ipad to start with, until I found the cool smooth crispness of real cards far more relaxing. No annoying infomercials for miracle bras, no hints about the next move, no promises of weird rewards, no disturbing messages giving you the percentage of people you have beaten.

The online Solitaire gave me the impression that the deal was manipulated to keep you playing, to tease you along, to advertise things it has worked out you need, and that it was being judgemental about your mental acuity.

I’m using a pack of cards which features Shakespeare’s flowers and each card has a quotation from the play in which the flower is mentioned. Charming. I can play the game while I look at the garden, the sunset, passersby, the tv, or the little spider with the stripy legs which lives somewhere around my desk.

Solitaire – “the last resource of the vacant mind” according to Myrtle Reed in A Weaver of Dreams (1911). She also concluded that it is not immoral to cheat when playing this game.

Mornings are spent with my back in the sun, reading the paper and doing the code cracker.

Mental acuity not great here: I mixed up the two given letters – and I never attempt the cryptic crossword.

My favourite indoor (sometimes outdoor in a sunny spot) pastime is reading. Occasionally, I’ll add a book to my ebook library, but prefer reading “real” books (and they don’t run out of battery). That said, I still become absorbed in the e versions.

On the cards (haha) are pursuits I would like to do more. When I heard my 13 year old nephew had taken up juggling during lockdown, I remembered I had some juggling balls and dug them out. They’re a bit the worse for wear, as my dog would be poised ready to grab them if they fell – which was often. The teethmarks and duct tape repair are evidence of his enthusiasm to join in. This time round, it’s possible I may get no further than the exercise on the first page of the instruction book.

The other pursuit is playing the piano. The piano has become a piece of furniture for family photos, boxes of cutlery too good to use and delicate tea cups. I have lost the muscle memory of many of the pieces I used to rattle off (I’m talking about music – the tea cups don’t rattle at all, surprisingly), but others I can stumble through. Fittingly, Beethoven’s Farewell to the Piano is manageable. He’s a bit of a show-off though, old Beethoven, not even easing up in a final piece. There are some big stretches for normal hands and the middle section has four flats and lots of accidentals. The inscription inside the book of music is: “Christmas 1971” signed by my music teacher, Mrs I M Lennon.

Best of all, perhaps, I enjoy my garden. The chooks keep me company out there, inspecting sweepings for tasty bugs.

Sometimes the light on plants is just right and I get a photo like this one to share, use as a screen saver and blog about. This chrysanthemum, which I won in a Friday raffle at work last year, was in a small pot and not looking very promising, so I popped it into the edge of the vegetable plot just a few weeks ago. It grew like crazy and had to be staked and tied to keep it from flopping over the little lime tree beside it.

This previously unassuming plant could be a metaphor for things to come when there is a time to step out of our confining bounds, flourish in fertile ground, grow and shine.

Sweet endearments

Let’s start with a tiny egg. What had popped into the nesting box and produced this?

Some research told me that these tiny eggs are called, variously, wind eggs, fart eggs, fairy eggs and witch eggs. Here’s my delightful source.

Another cutie pie thing landed on my kitchen window the other night.

It may have a limb missing, but with the help of my sister and brother in law, we identified it as a katydid. I’ve seen a few in the garden and found a dead one inside the house.

I noticed something strange happening to the swan plants. I thought a dandelion clock had latched onto the plant, but my sister told me it is the swan plant producing its fluffy seeds and this is how the plant got its name.

People across the country stood out at the gate to remember Anzac Day this year. Mum went out before 6am, and I joined her in case she fell into the garden in the dark. We heard a bugle call nearby. Later, I saw creative art work adorning fences, such as this one I photographed on a walk to St Albans Park.

Our display was a little more modest, and there were real poppies in the garden. I made Anzac biscuits and there a few left today in the RSA biscuit tin.

Today, I came across these two trinket boxes which my uncle had sent home from Egypt where he was stationed in 1942. Inside was a letter he had written on tissue-thin paper.

Here is his grave at Cassino in Italy, photographed with my cousin and his wife last year.

My brother thinks it is poignantly fitting that my uncle, who was an accountant, died on the last day of the financial year.

Shakespeare’s tragedies, performed during his lifetime, would end with a boisterous dance to cheer up the audience, and so we remember important people – and the little things which are given to lift our spirits. My boisterous dance, is simply to recount that, as we began our dinner tonight, there was a thud of something hitting the floor. I looked at Mum to see if she’d lost her knife again, but she was firmly gripping both knife and fork. She reached down and retrieved the top set of her dentures which had shot out when she found the cauliflower too hot. As Mum would say, “Happy days!”

On a final endearing note, take a look at this thank you video made by Laura Mucha for the people who help us, which I found on Poetry Roundabout this morning.