Monday, 15 February 2021

Nature has a dark side

I love encouraging certain insects and invertebrates into my garden. I have a list of favourites and also a mental list of those I will destroy on sight where possible. Is this fair? No. It is based purely on what's in it for me. If a critter is designed to damage or destroy a plant I value and I can eradicate it, I will. I do my best not to think about the morality and the unfairness. Life for humans too is unfair.

Slugs, snails, aphids and green caterpillars that love eating my food plants are exploded between my fingers or under foot. The hose is usually handy to wash the mess of it off my hands. Luckily I am not a buddhist. I use the digital approach - using my digits to quickly stop the slaughter of my food plants.

There is ONE exception, and I am not alone in this. Many of us enjoy raising Monarch caterpillars to the butterfly stage. They are truly beautiful creatures and only eat the specific plant we offer them. 

Since swan plant is their only food I have learnt to keep these perennial plants growing all year, though they don't like frosts. I usually have two 'crops' of butterflies each summer. This year the second crop has recently raised some very concerning thoughts for me and also neighbours. Could there be a toxin in the air, settling on our plants in parts of Rolleston? My observations and those of neighbours:

At least 60-70% of the caterpillars have had deadly problems.

Some chrysalids are smaller than normal

They often don't emerge from their chrysalis; mummifying or just dying

Severely deformed bodies and wings

Add to this anecdotal reports from neighbours of 'spray-type' smells in the air in the past month or so, unexplained headaches that go away when the sufferer leaves Rolleston for several hours. There is a heck of a lot of dust about since Hughes Developments created an environmental desert behind my property to start a massive (truly massive) subdivision. Was anything toxic sprayed? What could have been disturbed in the dirt? 

It is very distressing to see beautiful caterpillars and then butterflies in this horrifying state.

I tried to help one. I'd noticed it trying to leave its chrysalis but left it to get on with it. The next day it had made no progress. I noticed the casing was super thick, almost like plastic, unlike any I had seen before (see ajacent photo). I tried to prise it apart with my fingernails to help the butterfly which then tumbled out, all rumpled. It was unable to spread its wings and after observing it closely on my arm, I saw it only had two legs. I popped it on a flower but knew it was doomed. There was nothing normal about the insect. 

The same day three other butterflies emerged that were equally doomed. One side of their bodies was correct but the other side had wings that were deformed into the shape of a surfer's wave. Impossible for them to balance or fly. You can see it clearly in the photos.

A neighbour informed me he had the same thing happening to his butterflies. What is going on? I know nature makes mistakes from time to time, especially with such a complex process such as metamorphosis but I have never seen such suffering on such a scale.

Saturday, 16 January 2021


 If something is not working it is time to change tacks. My tendancy to persist against the odds is not always a good thing. Last year was a frustrating year where my attempts to move myself forward into new musical interests just never really gelled. Opportunities were rare and usually not a good fit for me or were puffs of smoke blown on the wind, though it has been fun to be the bassist for the Rolleston Ukelele Group.

I have met some interesting people. I have learnt a little bit about the underbelly of the music scene amongst the older set here in Canterbury. During this voyage of discovery I have identified two things: the depth of my passion for a new musical direction, and the impossibility of 'fitting in' when coming from the outside at my age because that road does not exist. It reminds me rather a lot of my 'road' to France. I was not able to get there by conventional means either so found a 'crack' or circuitous route. My passion for that country increased, the more I tried to succeed and the further down that route I went. Neither France, nor music, have been an overnight idea. I have incubated both over some time, influenced by obstacles that popped up. I've been working on becoming a vocalist and bass player. Neither is straightforward but I really love singing and playing.

For the moment, the duo idea seems to be on hold. Entertainment venues here don't appear to know what they should hire in terms of entertainers, in order to sell food and beverage and keep profitable. Two enlarged and improved venues opened up late last year: the Hornby Club and the Richmond Club (we don't really call them workingmen's clubs now for gender reasons). The clubs are trying out different types of offerings to see what works. This is tough on the current entertainers who are all jostling for an ever-decreasing bite of the pie. Covid didn't help live entertainment, of course.

And then along I come, hoping to find a way in. I started out by working on my voice, strengthening it, tuning up my vocal chords, searching for backing tracks and learning heaps of songs so that my duo partner and I would be ready to go. That's a work in progress as the playlist evolves to include different styles. We've sat in on many an entertainer to see how they are received by audiences and met quite a few of them. Some of them are encouraging of me. My party last year was an opportunity to try a few things out. Feedback was good but we want to be as professional as possible with the right songs, quality backing tracks and nice harmonies. Our duo which is not yet ready to launch may be on hold due to lack of opportunity but it is not forgotten and I'll be keen when the 'call' comes. I've also been gaining performance experience singing at club meetings around Christchurch.

I like entertaining. I've done a fair bit of it in the past, with radio programmes during the Loxene Gold Disc Awards 1972, theatre, acting and modelling and then, much later, several years as a professional bellydancer (mostly a soloist) performing at weddings, private parties, community happenings and corporate events. I was the resident dancer at the Kashmir Restaurant in Auckland.

There was plenty of public speaking experience thrown in too. In addition, I produced a number of dance presentations with primary children when I was a teacher and I am hoping all that experience might be put to good use, somehow. 

The frustration for me at present is my lack of opportunity to sing with musicians who actually know my songs. I turn up for open mic with my chord sheets hoping like hell the musicians know the keys, the intros, the instrumental breaks as there is no possibility of rehearsing. I hope the sound system is working correctly. Invariably there are difficulties. These sort of situations teach one to cope with adversity in front of an audience, to cope with the unexpected so that can be useful, but they don't lead to anything better. I'd like better control over my environment and material so that I can give of my best. 

While there is some market for rock and roll songs, my natural inclination is to sing rock/pop/ modern country and I'm also extending into jazz - just to see what suits my voice and style. Ideally I would like to be able to perfect my songs with a regular band during rehearsals.

The other string to my bow is also in development. I want to be a professional musician. I want to be a regular member of a band. Again, I am coming out of left-field, starting from scratch so it is not going to work if I plug away on my own. I am putting a big effort into teaching myself bass guitar. It was on my bucket list. I am learning to read bass clef again, getting to know my fretboard, learning how a bassist fits into a group. I listen to basslines on tracks now, not the vocalist. Runs, walks, pentatonic whatnots, slap, jazz, funk... I want to master it all. I can already use guitar chord charts to provide basslines, read bass tabs and conventional notation which is more than many musicans can do, to give myself the best possible flexibility should opportunities arise. If I have a question or want a wee jam session I can ask my duo partner John who is an experienced bassist. None of the above will get me into a band at my age. No one will take a punt on me and let me try. 

So, I have decided to put my energies into entering the conventional route and doing it in a structured and dedicated way. I want to immerse myself in bass playing for this year at Ara Institute.

They have a year-long course in music arts which I have applied for BUT...

I must pass an audition, among other things. I will be competing with teenagers who have been immersed in their high school music departments for the past years, being prepped for the audition, no doubt, by their music teachers. I'm old enough to be their grandmother but I believe I can fit right in and handle any difficulties in dealing with adolescents. After all, I have years of experience doing that from teaching youths and uni students in France. I just might be able to show them a thing or two. Again, I was a very mature student when I started my bachelor degree in 2003. I aced it. I want the opportunity to see what I can do this time.

The 'audition' is complicated and challenging for me. I have not studied music theory since 1970. I have had no bass teacher (I'm self-taught in my living room with an amp from the Warehouse). The exact requirements are rather sketchy: two performance pieces on bass to a backing track, one piece must have a 12-bar blues progression, the other a contemporary/other piece; a written theory test; aural tests; scales and arpeggios; an interview to discuss motivations and goals. Is it a bit intimidating? Absolutely yes! Am I nervous? Oh yes but I'm excited too. The opportunity to mix with musicians, young people, improve a talent, make new friends, reinvent myself again and have another adventure - that's a buzz for me. I need a serious focus and being immersed in the music scene will be an interesting learning curve that I want to put to good use at the end of the course. I just need to pass the audition to be offered a place. My audition is this month. Wish me luck!

Photos show me playing various instruments in the past, including providing accompaniment for a corporate farewell function during a pharmaceutical conference, entertaining a certain (pre-infamous) politician and other staff from Manukau City Council at their Christmas function, founding the St Marks School Orchestra.

Monday, 21 December 2020

Two years on - evaluation

This week I thought back two years to the day I moved into my new home/newbuild. It was exciting and scary to build a home while unemployed but I enjoyed making the thousand-and-one decisions on my home and garden. Each has been completely personalised. 

The garden is coming along, despite climatic damage and challenges. The wind here is horrid; it's so strong and frequent. I often find just one day of wind here sears the lawn, drying everything out and breaking stuff and the soil isn't great either, as you will know from a previous post on drainage problems this year. However, I find persistence over the long-term usually gets you there.

My place and I have survived possum attacks, drainage problems created by the developer, several minor repairs. I've done all the painting of fences and garden planting and design myself so it is a source of satisfaction but nature being nature, it is interesting to see how it evolves over time. 




Gardening here on my own has meant rather a sacrifice in the health area. At my age, wielding a crowbar repeatedly over 2 days had permanently bad consequences down the track. I hadn't realised the impacts would have such an 'impact'. ACC didn't want to know. My hands and shoulders are bad as a result which is limiting what I'd like to do and affecting quality of life, but the worst of the heavy stuff is done. There was no option but to dig holes and plant things myself. I can now sit back and enjoy the beauty.









 Some of the most rewarding plants this year have been my peonies and hostas. They've settled in well, sheltered a bit by the house. Lavender does well here too, all varieties. My little citrus trees benefitted from frost cloth over winter but my fruit trees did not like a late cold snap here and failed to develop fruit or, if they had some, it all dropped off. At least the trees, unencumbered by fruit, are putting out a lot of wood. Maybe next year I'll see a bumper crop of apricots, plums, nectarines and apples. This year, nothing.

Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, currants, boysenberries are all giving me plenty of yummy mouthfulls but not enough yet to convert to jam. The blueberries have some fruit but are are not looking as happy as they might. My French potager is keeping me well fed so I don't need to buy much from the supermarket produce department. New potatoes and peas will be welcome this Christmas.


Inside the house most of the decorating is complete. There's still a bit to do but I have run out of money for now. The French influence has grown over the two years, with small contributions from Jean-Claude before Covid hit. He has passed on things he doesn't want or which he has seen in second-hand stores. Mostly they are small decorative items such as plates or bonbonnieres, or very old French books to decorate my library (and read too, from time to time). I have his mother's tapestry on my bedroom wall. Sometimes it feels as if I am sleeping in a French chateau. Perfect. I love to fill the vases with perfumed roses I have grown and at this time, of course, Christmas lillies.

It's good to step back and look at progress to see that the sacrifices and effort do indeed bear 'fruit'. I can now look out of each window and see a pretty vista specifically designed to add value to my interior decor. Climbing roses and grape vines add such a 3-D effect. Delphiniums and other herbaceous perennials add a romantic air and on a warm summer evening I can choose to sit outside on my patios, garden lighting switched on, and dream of the progress I might see in another two years. The hard stuff may be finished but the gardening effort never will be. Over winter I can hunker down and enjoy my home, working on other projects I am planning. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Fun and Highland Games in Hororata

 November sees a tradition in mid-Canterbury - the Hororata Highland Games. It's a key event on the calendar and even this Covid-spiced year things were settled enough for it to go ahead. I didn't attend this year as I didn't feel like spending the day alone there and, in fact, I had gone last year and enjoyed the colour and the grunting.

Hororata is a small town on the Plains, 50kms west of Christchurch, sometimes famous for its very yummy pies, serving the rural community. The Highland Games started in 2011. The Hororata community wanted to make a positive change following the damage of the Canterbury earthquakes. The annual event has increased in popularity with 10,000 people coming to the 2016 event. It has become New Zealand’s biggest Scottish festival.

Bring along a picnic but leave any glassware at home as it is banned. Activities to entertain you abound: Highland dancing competitions, piping and drumming, Tug O’ War and Scottish heavy athletics (men’s and women’s) which include the hammer throw,  the Hororata stones and tossing the caber - hence the grunting. It's heavy athletic work and some women enjoy competing. Many competitors drop their stones and cabers in spectacular failures.

Also at the event are merchants' stalls, wool-spinners, medievalists, Scottish geneology enthusiasts and the famous pie-eating competition. The latter was a bit odd to me. Why would anyone want to do that? With or without tomato sauce? But, like many of the activites at The Games, you can get swept up in the fun and atmosphere. Each year the event can attract up to 10,000 visitors.

Hororata has a Night Glow event around the same time. A great many hot air balloons assemble at night, lit by floodlights and hot air burners. Spectacular.



Monday, 16 November 2020

NZ vs France health statistics 2019

 Healthcare issues usually feature in election campaigns; this year was no exception. But even before that, of course, the consequences from Covid-19 were already to the fore. New Zealand has some significant inequalities when it comes to health treatment; cancer being one example, screening for bowel cancer is another. We are so far behind other OECD countries in those areas, so I thought it might be worth taking a look at healthcare pros and cons and performance analyses between NZ and France as things stood before Covid struck. I've been through both systems personally. Firstly, just a few bits of info to give you an idea of the French healthcare system...

Pretty much everyone there has a carte vitale. This green card is presented at the doctor's or pharmacist's to inform the government you are entitled to have public-funded care and it is handled automatically. If you are employed in France 70% of your medical costs are covered so you just pay the balance at the consultation. For seniors in France who are 65 or older, or individuals with chronic illnesses such as cancer, the services are fully covered. 

To pay for additional services like chiropractors or long-term care at private hospitals, or to cover the remaining 30% of the basic care, individuals can purchase private insurance. I wish I had known that when I first arrived in France. I discovered I had to pay hundreds of euros before I could check out of a hospital there as only 70% was covered by the public system. A hard lesson and one I instantly rectified by taking out additional insurance. It's a system which means most costs for almost everyone are covered, though dentistry can still be a challenge.That means that healthcare in France is some of the most subsidised and affordable in the world but it is a big drain on the government budget.

Now, let's take a look at the statistics pre-covid 19. The main source for these statistics is Le Point 21 November 2019 which published the Panorama report from the OECD.

The OECD ranks democratic countries with market-led economies. Le Point ranked them according to FIVE themes: access to care, state of health, risk factors, quality of care, resources. Overall France was ranked 9th, with New Zealand 13th. Australia was 6th.

 Two things that plunge France and NZ into the area of risk factors for the health system are tobacco and alcohol. Two other risk areas are the high prescription rates and a lack of doctors, especially in rural areas. Mental health is the fifth risk area. It can take three months or more to get a first appointment with a psychiatrist in France. It's no better in NZ.

There are too many suicides in France, the rate is the highest in the OECD but NZ is  up there too, as we know, particularly in certain gender and age categories. Overall, France has 13.1/1000 inhabitants, while NZ has 11.5.

When it comes to general health ranking France does better; 82.6 is the average life expectancy, 154 for mortality rate of avoidable deaths/100,000 inhabitants, 4.8% of the adult population have diabetes. New Zealand has an average life expectancy of 81.9 years, 178 avoidable deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, 8.1% of the population have diabetes (sadly no surprise there, possibly due to us being the 3rd most obese country in the world).

In France and also, I am finding, in NZ the new generation of doctors, largely the female ones, have no interest in working as their predecessors did (60 hours per week) which makes it very difficult to obtain appointments in either country, especially if your doctor is a female with children, working a few hours a week. Both countries have an under-supply of GPs and other doctors.

Ease of access to care: New Zealand 5th ( 100% population coverage for primary care, 78.6% spent on public sector),  France 6th (99.9% population covereage, 77.1% spent on public sector).

As a contrast, the United States sends the most on  health for very average results.

Risk factors that are not well controlled

Tobacco: France 25.4% smoke daily, NZ 13.8% no surprises there; Alcohol: France 11.7 litres drunk per adult per year, NZ 8.8litres; Obesity: France 49% of population, NZ 66.6%.

French doctors are often hostile to any suggestion some of their tasks could be delegated to pharmacists or nurses, such as vaccinations. This is not a constructive attitude, very protectionist, whereas in NZ pharmacists can give flu jabs, as can nurses, smear tests are done by nurses etc so that doctors can concentrate their time on more complicated consultations.

Quality of care (looking at the use of antibiotics, asthma, death after a heart attack, survival after breast cancer)

France prescribes 23 daily doses of antibiotics per 1000 inhabitants, NZ 25.8 daily doses. France admits 150 patients for asthma or chronic pulmonary obstruction per 100,000 inhabitants, NZ a whopping 363. France has a rate of 5.6 deaths from heart attack per 100,000 inhabitants during the 30 days following the infarctus, NZ 4.7. France has a rate of 87 surviving breast cancer for 5 years, NZ has 87.6.

Fulltime nurses in hospitals in France receive the equivalent of 38.5 euros compared to NZ nurses 49 euros. French nurses have a guaranteed employent and good pensions but are very poorly paid. The average across the OECD is 44.5 (currency, purchase power and parity have been adjusted in these figures). 

French people judge inequality of access to healthcare as inacceptable, far ahead of the inequalities of housing, income etc, men and women. They insist on equal access for all, even if you have no money. In NZ we seem to accept that if you don't have medical insurance or are a beneficiary etc then you can expect to possibly die as a result of lack of access to good health care, including medications.

Healthcare spending per inhabitant

France spends $4964.7 compared to NZ $3922.6. There are 3.2 doctors per 1000 inhabitants in France, NZ has 3.3. The OECD average is 3.5.

The number of  hospital beds per 100 inhabitants

France has a whopping 6 beds. NZ has 2.7 beds. It seems other countries can supply good quality care for less beds than the French system. Wastage of resources represents 20% of expenses on healthcare in OECD countries. This includes hospitalisations for diabetes and cardiac insufficiency which could be treated via primary care providers, prescriptions that are not necessary, insufficient use of generic drugs. The average stay in a healthcare establishment (medical, surgical or obstetric) is 9.9 days in France, yet only 7.1 in NZ. Are we rushing kiwi patients out the door or is France being too generous?

It's anyone's guess what deleterious effects the pandemic will have on quality and type of care in OECD countries from now on but keeping the pandemic 'under control' MUST be a positive thing in terms of preserving our health systems and access.

Friday, 30 October 2020

When past and present pupils meet

Last week I had the opportunity to have a luncheon with other alumni from Papanui High in Christchurch. The luncheon was followed by a tour of the current school, guided by senior students. These events are rare and it was quite by chance that I heard about it in advance. 

I'd been chatting to an ex-Waitakere City Council colleague Darryl who mentioned the get-to-gether and so we discovered we had both gone to the very same high school, but that our paths had never crossed. Darryl had been there a little ahead of me and left just before I arrived. Alas for me, that was the case for most of the attendees. There was no-one else at the luncheon I had known during my time at the high school.

The school was originally called Papanui Technical college and opened in 1936. It was renamed Papanui High School in 1944. My maternal uncle, Eric McNabb attended while it was still a technical college. There he is in a cadet's uniform at the college.

I attended  Papanui High School from1968-72, leaving at the end of the seventh form year. I'd been a member of various choirs, the orchestra, the drama club and photography club and a chamber music group. I had continued to play the violin and was active in school productions. 

My last year there saw me in the lead role in the 'Calamity Jane' production. Some of you might think I was well cast and am still a 'calamity'. I was a big success in the production and it was one of the few times in life I felt appreciated or talented.[photos show me signing autographs while principal Ted Fancy and his wife speak to my mother, me stripping during a rehearsal in the hall and then threatening with a rifle a bar patron in the same musical Calamity Jane ] 

My school gave me an opportunity to discover aspects of myself that I still use today. That's the mark of a good school and although I was never a great scholastic talent I did cram a fair amount of experiences in and seem to have gone further than many alumni, in certain areas.

I enjoyed listening to other alumni's stories and being shown around the current school. We all reminisced constantly, sharing our recollections with our student guides because society and the times have radically changed. 

From time to time I would step back and listen in as the transfer of school history between alumni and current students picked up pace. I was watching something very important happening and I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with the senior students who seemed confident, well-behaved, open-minded and balanced.

When we had been students at the school we were streamed, depending on our IQ and academic tendancies. I was put in the professional stream, others were more commercial or technical. There was even a unique class with the prefix NM for non-maths. I never progressed maths beyond the fourth form and for my final three years I was spared the suffering of not understanding maths lessons. There were only a handful of us who were excused but we were all reasonably intelligent, just no good at maths. I wasn't much good at French either but, look where it eventually led me - life in France. My English teacher Mr Bunn married my French teacher Miss Cowie after I left.

In those days boys and girls were kept separate as much as possible, even in a co-educational environment. We found ways around that, of course. The only time I got a detention was for being in the music rooms after reasonable hours. 

A group of us were playing 'spin the bottle' and 'truth, dare or promise'. We were having a whale of a time and were not doing anything dreadful but as the group started to break up we were caught out by a member of staff. 

[See empty cloakroom and seating photo below for that very room]. It's hard to believe our orchestra instruments were stored there; my violin in its case on the seating, the double basses and cellos ranged along the walls. A smaller, separate room was used for the brass band instruments. I clearly remember my drama teacher Mr Bunn trying to encourage a younger boy and me to practice kissing there for the production of Romeo and Juliet. We were both mortified to be singled out and having to do THAT. I was a shy student mercilously tormented by the band boys because of my surname FREE. Boys can be so cruel.

Our alumni group were very saddened to see the integrity of the layout of the school almost unrecognisable. The cricket grounds out the front which had framed the main block had been replaced by ugly asphalt and cars. One key block had been amputated and flogged off in return for the use of a new gym and access to swimming. The old swimming pool was gone, instead there was a dance studio and Maori/Polynesian structure. The environs are far less aesthetic than they were, both inside and out and the principal explained it is difficult for the school, being sandwiched between a mall, big-box developments, a railway and lack of access and parking.

The school offers a broad range of subjects and even hosts an ESOL unit and one for Special Needs kids up to the age of 20. Our group got excited to see the solid materials department with so much technical equipment which includes 3D printing. "You are so lucky," we said to the students showing us around because we'd had to manage with almost nothing. 

There were plenty of ooos and ahhhs as we explored the campus, trying to orient ourselves with various buildings, but much has changed. Politics and a changing society have radically modified subject content, delivery and focus. At least girls and boys are free to follow any subject they wish. 

In my day I had no right to do technical drawing or sewing or other home economics. Girls, especially, knew they had to follow the career path dictated by their mothers. I did liberal studies in my last years at Pap and chose to render hairdressing services to ladies in a retirement home. The school paid for a portable kit for me and Langers hairdressing trained me. I did so well they offered me an apprenticeship but my mother scotched that idea. Too working class for her snobby ideas but maybe I would have had a chain of hairdressing salons and a stable career rather than the constant instability that became my reality.

I was particularly curious to see the theatre and music departments. Oh how I would love to be a student in today's times. They have their own little theatre and lighting gear. As I toured the new music rooms I saw plenty of acoustic guitars, an electric guitar, bass and drum kit but little in the way of classical instruments other than piano. There was a long table covered in electronic musical keyboards. How cool!

The former gymnasium is now a study room. There's an ICT room full of computers, photoshop and graphic design software. It really is a different world but our group agreed our level of English is vastly superior to that of modern students. 

I was stunned to be back in the old school assembly hall which was much as I remembered it. While no-one was looking, I pushed through those double doors that lead to the old music rooms and backstage and let the memories flood back. It's all old and sad looking but still recognisable. A lot of maintenance and improvements have not been allowed to happen due to rebuilding plans following the earthquakes. I climbed the steps backstage to access the stage. It was almost 50 years since I had stood on it. It felt great and entirely natural. Sooo much water has flowed under my bridge since 1972. I'm a lot more confident.

We remembered the uncomfortable wooden benches we used to sit on for assembly, boys one side and girls the other, school orchestra just in front of the stage, staff parading in while we sang the school song in latin. Crumbs! but we had respect for our elders (well, most of us did).

Large photo shows our group of alumni in the old assembly hall, me in mustard, Darryl on the left end of seating. We all enjoyed our trip back in time and into the future, interacting with students. I'd like to do more of that in future if given the opportunity.

The college in 1940. Note the space in front of the main wing which gave a wonderful perspective. Quite a bit of the space still existed when I studied there and the trees along the front on Langdon's Rd were a good size by then. credit photo


Below is the school orchestra in 1970, me in the top row second from right.

For those who are alumni, maybe you remember interacting with some of these teachers.

Other images of what is left of the old historic parts of the school. My heartfelt thanks to the staff and senior students for such a gift of revisiting such a key part of our pasts.