Living in interesting times

Samuel Pepys was familiar to me as the writer of an entertaining diary which gives us a picture of life in 1600s Restoration London. I expected to find, when I recently read Samuel Pepys, a Biography by Richard Ollard, that the subject was a rich socialite with time on his hands to enjoy all manner of entertainments. Instead, I discovered a much richer picture of a person of humble origins who was significant in establishing the means by which a well-organised navy could function to defend English borders and trade.

Pepys’s administrative talents enabled him to cross class barriers in ways I thought were not possible in those times. His skills were recognised by Charles II, even as Pepys struggled to get funding and a serious approach to the navy from a king who was continually distracted by pleasurable pursuits. Pepys was not averse to pleasurable pursuits, either, with sexual exploits (and exploitations) disturbing to the modern reader. He lined his own pockets with bribes – which seemed a common practice expected of people in office.

Pepys was helped by people who recognised his talents and supported his education and the positions he held. Similarly, Pepys helped others in the same way, even some who tried his patience at times. His support helped those people to better their lives. He supported the education of boys at the Royal Mathematical School at Christ’s Hospital. It was important that educated people were available to provide effective roles such as his administrative work with the navy.

Pepys had valued friendships with a varied group of intellectuals. He collected a significant library of books and art, carefully housed and protected through plague, fire and political intrigue and surviving until today. I was fascinated to read that, while incarcerated in The Tower during the Papal Purge, he was able to use contacts to clear his name, giving clear instructions about how to conduct the investigation into the allegations. This uncovered (for me) an underworld of criminal intrigue with connections extending into France.

Pepys was frustrated by the tendency of aristocratic ship captains who took it upon themselves to mount ill-advised attacks on Dutch ships, often with disastrous consequences. In one such case the Dutch retaliated, sailing up the Thames and inflicting considerable damage and causing panic among the citizens with those who were able retreating into the countryside for safety. Pepys preferred the “tarpaulins”, sea captains who had worked their way up from ship’s boy and who knew how to handle a ship and its crew.

Pepys travelled to Tangier which was, for a time, in British hands, and to Spain briefly before sailing home. He truly lived in interesting times, which doesn’t seem to have been the curse it is purported to be.

Ollard’s writing style makes the reading of the biography a treat. I was particularly taken by his description of the clock as a device which at first entertained with its workings before its effects in “dismembering” existence were felt. The same could be said of many technological developments today.

This biography has been sitting amongst my history books for many years waiting for me to read it. More recently, I picked up a pictorial publication by the National Portrait Gallery entitled Pepys and his Contemporaries by Richard Ollard. It refreshed my recollections of the biography and the impressive variety of people who were influences in Pepys’s life. It concludes with an essay by Catharine MacLeod entitled “Pepys and the Resoration Art World” detailing Pepys’s relationships with portrait painters, particularly, who he commissioned. It also mentions Pepys’s enjoyment of music; he was impressed that the painter Cooper was a skilled musician and speaker of French. In the early portrait of Pepys by John Hales, Pepys is shown holding a piece of music: “his own composition, a setting of a poem by William Davenant, ‘Beauty Retire’ “. The collections of portraits, seascapes, landscapes and prints Pepys left are significant resources.


Usually, we are pretty relaxed at home.

Then it began to get busier. Flowers arrived.

People arrived from Sydney, New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Wellington, Ashburton and Dunedin.

Can you guess the occasion?

A huge gathering of Nola’s children, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren met at Sarah and Mike’s house. She didn’t want fuss – a bit overwhelmed.

Wild or Tamed

When our bowl of supermarket blueberries ran out this morning it was satisfying to be able to pick more from the garden. I don’t think I’m imagining that these home-grown berries are tastier than the others. I am not an over-gardener, if there is such an expression, more laissez-faire. There is no spray used or fertilisers apart from my own compost or, in the case of the berries, bark and pine needles for mulch. Perhaps the natural approach makes a difference to the taste – or is it the freshness?

On Sunday, I harvested almost 800g of blueberries and black currants which was more than enough for two shortcakes. There are still more berries to be picked, and the raspberries are beginning to appear. Mostly, we just graze on those, like bears in the woods!

There’s something quite feral about eating from your own gardening. Picking berries seems very hunter-gatherer. The garden itself is quite wild and I resist keeping it too tidy. Mowing the grass/clover/various weeds which masquerade as a lawn, tying back plants so you can walk up the path, and dead-heading is about as good as it gets. Having said that, there are weeds I target: convolvulus and oxalis among them. I watch out for acanthus spreading too much.

Violas have chosen that high spot, somehow. The runner beans have come up by themselves. I read somewhere that if you leave them they will die back and come up again each year. The runner beans in the foreground are growing up one bamboo stake and one gone-to-seed silver beet plant. The broad beans were a disappointment – just a few pods (but they were delicious). Perhaps the trees (self-sown pseudopanax, ake ake and cordylines) shade them too much. Speaking of trees, there’s a volunteer “forest” of kowhai at the front of the house, and pittosporum comes up regularly. Perhaps original forest is regenerating.

I love the way violas pop up everywhere, particularly between paving stones. A friend gave me a geum, and it has spread to a number of places, notably the path where it leans delightfully across the lawn (sorry, grass). Sweet William, Mediterranean daisies, aquilegia and fox gloves pop up in various places and, of course, there’s feverfew, which I tend to refer to as “feverseveral”. These free-range plants provide interest and happiness – so important when you don’t have a view otherwise.

Plants come in waves over spring and summer. The forget-me-nots have been replaced by feverfew. Here it is looking quite fetching with hydrangeas and a carpet rose which I won in a raffle at work and put into a rare spare space. I can’t claim to have had much of a hand in all this.

Obviously, I plant most vegetables, but what happens next is beyond my control it seems – but I am on to pinching off the laterals on the tomatoes.

The kale has sweet peas scrambling over it which came up by themselves from last year’s crop and are all pink. The stakes are for the sweet peas I did plant this season, but that area has been taken over by feverfew and borage, so the sweet peas are growing up those plants rather than the stakes.

Sometimes I almost feel like tearing my hair out about it all, but lately I’ve been more relaxed. I read about a book called Wilding by Isabella Tree in a magazine called The Simple Things. The author has let her whole farm grow as it likes, with amazing results: regenerating plants and rare wildlife. I enjoy watching the finches which come in little flocks to feed on the borage seeds. One good thing about not having a cat or dog anymore is the increased birdlife in the garden. They make a fruitful garden a lovely place to be.

When I go walking I like to look at people’s gardens. It’s sad to see fewer and fewer trees and those rather monotonous easy-care “gardens”. Due to my ‘Wilding’ reading, I look more kindly on neglected gardens. There will be a whole ecosystem in there. Occasionally, there’s a charming garden with a little cottage peeping through the flowers and trees. A high-point of my walk is a new house with beautiful landscaping on a stream boundary. It has the original trees from the previous house and huge square steps rising up through bright green mounds of native moss.

This grapevine in my garden has the most rapid growth of all. It’s advancing across the garden shed at one end and all amongst the trees at the other. I do cut this back, having learnt that the grapes need to be in the sun. There are always far more grapes than we can eat or give away.

This apple tree is showing signs of another great crop. We use most of the apples, but happily share them with the birds as well.

Sturmer apples

Flowers become tamed in the domestic setting.

The yellow roses fell apart after a few days, but there were more ready to pick this morning.

Finally, the last of the cherries. Most of the crop was eaten by happy birds.

So wild or tamed? A balance of both, I think, as I put on my red-band gumboots and disappear into the overgrowth with the grubber.


It occurred to me the other morning that I was dressed like my Sindy doll.

I rescued her before Mum’s house was demolished in 2015 and we were doing a clean-out. Her original jeans and red, white and blue striped top were long gone, and at some stage I made new clothes for her out of material scraps.

This “snap!” moment, plunged me into the depths of memory – and photo albums – for other such coincidences.

In 2014, I had had my bike a couple of days when I realised it was just like the bicycle on the tile I’d bought in the delightful walled town of Bergues in the north of France in 2005. I must, at least subconsciously, have been aware of the little bicycle every time I stepped onto my front porch.

Tile at front door since 2005
Bicycle – new in 2014

My sister, Sarah, has an impressive vegetable garden. In 2016 I took this photo of her with a freshly picked cauliflower.

It reminded me of the photo I had taken of Dad in just about the same spot. He also had an impressive vegetable garden. I’m not sure when the photo was taken. Probably late 70s early 80s. I can see a fine crop of broad beans behind him – and silver beet which Sarah does not grow!

Finally, two other snap moments from the distant past. The first is my border collie, Mack, with Mackenzie’s dog at Tekapo in 2002.

Thurza and Sam in the cherry tree 2004

And my niece, Sam, (on the right) with the little girl from down the road. When they met for the first time at my front door, they were momentarily transfixed as if looking into a mirror. Then they were off, exploding through the house and garden, delighted with themselves.

And I keep finding more… Here’s Sam in 2003 with “Hamish”.

We love reading. January 2003.

In fact, everyone seemed to like to read with Hamish.

Harry, Mack and Greer, December 2002.

More a photo opportunity snap than coincidence, but too charming to omit.

Reasons to be cheerful (Part One)

This Sunday morning, the view from my bedroom window was so cheering I had to sit a while and enjoy it. I’ve had those two geraniums in hanging baskets for years – as long as I’ve been in the house, which is over thirty years. The baskets are new, and the proliferation of flowers must be their cheerful response to being in fresh potting mix. The fox gloves beyond come up wherever they like each year, as do the aquilegias and geums, and are full of bees.

Usually on Sunday morning, a friend and I walk on the beach. Today was a little wet for that, so we opted to walk the new city promenade which opened today.

I took no photos. There was so much to look at, I didn’t know where to stop for a photo. I just had to keep looking at everything: the  sculptures, buildings, gardens, people…it was overwhelming and joyful, tinged with a little sadness and nostalgia. Every time I’m in the central city there is more to take in, more to hope for, more to farewell.

We walked from the Margaret Mahy Playground to the Pegasus Arms, pausing to fill in answers on the quiz cards handed out by volunteers to celebrate the opening of the promenade. We admired eight part-grown Paradise ducklings, the Tree Houses for Swamp Dwellers, and the Pou Whenua in Victoria Square. I contemplated ways of removing the duck-poo which was all about, looked for Ada Wells among the women on the Kate Sheppard memorial, and touched the greenstone by Oi Manawa, Canterbury Earthquake Memorial. 

My friend left me at Turanga, the new central library, and I explored all four levels. I found it very moving; a wonderful building built for people  – and it was full of people of all ages, notably parents or grandparents, and probably aunts, with children. I took one very inadequate photo, and that was of part of the children’s section.

Children can sit on cushions on the roots of the tree sculpture. This section, on the first level, looks wonderful from outside too, through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The circular lamps are magical features and there were many cheerful children beneath them.

There are a great many books of all kinds, and play areas, reading areas, interactive areas, relaxing spaces, working spaces, discovery spaces – with people looking at home in all of them. This is a place with heart.

The view of the city from the upper levels is breath-taking, even when it is of the wrecked cathedral, and fenced-off spaces yet to be developed. I was drawn to the view of the cathedral, framed by a huge crane, with the hill suburbs in the distance and moody, misty skies above the hills. Below, opposite the other side of the library, there was a young girl dancing joyfully on the Gap Filler Dance-o-Mat and children playing on the giant green chairs beyond that.

And so, fully cheerful, I headed home for lunch. By the playground, I photographed the real roots of a poplar tree. There’s something magical about them too.


It’s a week since Cosmo died. It doesn’t seem that long. 

The things I have, at times, looked forward to without him seem a little hollow, as if part of the heart of our home has gone.

I can walk into the living room without looking for puddles  – or worse – on the wood floor. I have put away the bucket and mop. We can keep the warmth in the house now we don’t have to leave the back door open. I can get to my computer without taking a large, sometimes perilous, step across Cosmo’s bed.

I have stored his bed in the rafters of the garage. The towel we kept by the back door to dry him off if he had come in from the rain is on the line (in the rain). 

His blankets have been washed and stacked in a corner.

His bowls have been washed, but sit empty (for when Jock comes to stay again).

His treats are still in a basket on top of the fridge.

His collar and lead are by the front door.

The bag holder is also ready by the door, convenient for setting out on a walk.

And this is on the back door:

Cosmo had soft little dark ears and nose like that, a ginger tinge to his rough coat, a white patch on his chest, and deep brown eyes, but never an expression which was quite so malicious – although a hedgehog or rabbit might disagree. 

We miss him.

Dog’s Day is Done

Sadly, Cosmo died yesterday. The vet came to the house, and the end was peaceful and in familiar surroundings.

Cosmo was on his bed sleeping mid-afternoon, and it seemed right that that was where his day ended.

It was a sleepy sort of day for everyone, overcast and cooler.

Jock, our visitor, one eye open
Nola, nodding off.
and Cosmo on his comfy bed.

It seemed fitting that Cosmo had an active day on Friday, enjoying the grass on a sunny day (see previous post). 

Pete drove many miles yesterday to share the grieving and the happy memories. He was Cosmo’s first owner.  Cosmo came from a Masterton breeder, and was 12 weeks old when Pete collected him in November 2003, and we celebrated his 15th birthday on 1 August this year.

Cosmo was a feisty little border terrier, curious and eager to be part of everything, a companion for Pete and for Kate and Will. Pete’s sister, Jean, once commented that Cosmo had the ambition to be a hood ornament as he pressed his nose to the windscreen, eager to be on the move and going somewhere interesting. And he did go to lots of interesting places – sometimes unaccompanied, until Pete worked out that Cosmo was climbing the ladder to the tree house and launching himself over the fence to freedom.

With me, he had daily walks, mostly with Nola as he got older, and a weekly visit to the beach, followed by a bath in the wheelbarrow. And there were camping trips and rabbit hunts with Pete. 

He recovered well from a pit-bull attack, tooth extractions and a bout of Cushings, to have a more settled old age.

This morning, the first dog I saw at the beach was a border terrier who seemed quite unconcerned to be made a fuss of and wept over. Dogs are much more matter of fact than we are.

It was great to see that there are many more dogs having their day on the beach, on the street with owners on leads, and in cars with their ears in the breeze.

Now, particularly that cheerful, distracting little Jock has returned to his home, it is Cosmo’s absence we are noticing about the house, whereas it was his presence we were always conscious of before. 

Here is his grave, beneath the apple tree and grape vine, close to the house so he is part of the embrace of home and of us, with his old companions, Mack (border collie, died 2012, under the raspberries) and Skipper (cat, died 2016, by the rosemary, near previous cat, Holly), not far away.

Rest in peace, wee chap.