Wandering Thoughts

May 30, 2019


Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:51 am

The waves were minuscule. Tiny swells steepening, then spiralling as they tripped on sandbars, held-up by the offshore wind. There was no chance of surfing. There was no rushing to the car to hurriedly pull on a wetsuit. Instead I stood almost motionless at my vantage point on the viewing platform where the scrubby bush gave way to dunes.

I wasn’t disappointed though. The sun rose just as I got there. The sky above me was lined with thick grey cloud, sculpted into valleys and ridges by the storm above. On the horizon the cloud was just high enough to leave a gap between itself and the sea. Just enough space for the sun to bring the world to light as it passed up from the horizon. Not a red sunrise, but a soft melted-yellow light. The low green peninsular to the north caught it, as did the long sweeping point to the south. Rocks and headlands that had been grey moments before took on life and looked almost warm, inviting. The beach began to glow, swirls of sand twisting and moving, caught by gusts of wind. In the water, the shallows shone, the sun turning the waves a see-through green. Further out, the light turned whitecaps into constellations, each splash a soft-yellow star, part of patterns that stretched to the end of the earth.

Pantheism is the idea that one way or another god and the universe are the same. Or perhaps, that because all we can know is the universe, and because it is suitably awesome, we might as well think of it as god. It’s not much of a religion. It offers no guiding rules, no cures, no promises of a better place to come. I’m not much of a practitioner really either. Usually I tell people I’m agnostic – meaning agnostic about the idea of God the creator, or God with plans. And that’s true. Much of the time I’m not an active Pantheist. How could you be? There’s no rules. No practices. No way of weaving it through your life.

I’m what I call a hiker’s pantheist. Someone who sometimes stumbles round a curve on a track walking somewhere and sees a sight so awfully beautiful they can’t escape the feeling it must mean something. That everything must mean something. It’s a momentary faith. But they’re impressive moments.

And there is a lesson in hiker’s pantheism, I realised last weekend, as I stood watching an impossibly kind light bring everything to life for a few fleeting seconds before the sun was muted by clouds. When you get to witness it, there’s solace in the sublime, even if it offers no explanations, or cures, or promises. None of that, but there are moments. When you get them, make as much of it as possible.

It’s not a profound idea. Barely a consolation. Except when it is.

Surrounded by cloudy grey light, I turned tail, back down the track, hurrying, so I wouldn’t be late to meet my friends.

May 2, 2019

A simple trip

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 9:37 pm

As the plane flew south the lush green ebbed out of the land. Dryer, paler. Thirsty Australia returning. I’m usually irritated in flight or busy thinking through the job ahead, or heading home, imagining a comfortable bed. Occasionally I’m excited, imagining some place new. But this time I was on the edge of sad. An ache, not fighting tears, but a presence, a pressure, the need to swallow.

No good reason. It was a short simple trip. A visit to an old friend. Us speeding along narrow roads cut into sugar cane, checking beach after beach, talking about hopes and mistakes. A short simple trip, which let the past press forwards as I sat in that uncomfortable seat, and remind me of might-have-beens and missed chances. That was reason enough. A sort of sorrow, even as the falling sun started to catch that water left in the land. Farmers’ ponds, twisting rivers and ebbing lakes all getting their chance to shine, then fade, from gold to white, before flashing for a blinding moment, before they were left behind.

March 17, 2019

Processing terror…

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 1:01 pm

The last time I felt like this was in the wake of 9/11. My partner at the time was from the US. We were living in Sydney. For several days we walked around like confused ghosts, trying to work out what it meant, where it came from, what was to come. We compulsively bought newspapers, even when we knew they wouldn’t tell us anything new.

Now it’s Twitter. More diverse than newspapers, but rapid fire, clippings, half thoughts, short sharp shouting matches, confusing. This is me trying to get my head around it.


Thread through everything, attempts at understanding, bursts of anger, is sorrow. Sorrow — even though I didn’t know anyone directly affected. Sorrow — even though I know the fact the crime happening in my home country makes it no different from terrorism on the other side of the earth. I hurt for the people affected. I’m sorry.


The alleged terrorist is Australian. A rightwing member of Australia’s senate tried to blame the crime on immigration. Australian media broadcast the beginning of the footage the perpetrator filmed from his head-cam. The footage stopped before the killing started. But even so. This was done despite requests from the New Zealand police not to publicise the footage. It would be easy to be angry at Australia. Just as some people blame all Muslims for 9/11. But New Zealand has its own stock of far right loons. Most Australians are appalled by the crime. And a 16 year old Australian teen bravely egged the aforementioned senator. If my twitter feed is anything to go by, the broadcasting of the head-cam footage is offensive to a lot of Australians too.


In my Twitter feed plenty of attention is also been paid to the politicians and media organisations (particularly in Australia, but also in NZ) who have been dog-whistling Islamophobia for years. I’m not so sure they’re the cause of this crime. My guess is that their main effect is on frightened elderly voters. And that Neo-Nazis would exist and commit crimes regardless of the squawking in parliaments and newspapers. I’m not completely certain, but don’t think Andrew Bolt, or Rob Hosking, or Don Brash are gateway drugs. That doesn’t mean they aren’t utterly vile though. Nor does it mean that they don’t cause harm. The fear and suspicion they foster might not cause people to pick up guns, but it undermines democracy and civil society nonetheless. If they truly care about their countries they could do one thing to show this — they could shut up.


I’ve read tweeted allegations that New Zealand and Australia’s secret services have been so fixated on the left and on the risk of Islamist terrorists that they’ve ignored the far right. The evidential base for these claims is fairly weak. But that’s always going to be the case — secret service work by its nature doesn’t leave much evidence. What we need from now is clear reassurances that the threat of far right terror is being taken seriously. Actually, we need more than reassurances: we need evidence. We need action and then evidence from our governments.

The government also needs make it illegal to own semi-automatic weapons in New Zealand. (The conservative prime minister) John Howard bravely did this in Australia despite concerted opposition from the gun lobby in the 1990s. Jacinda Adern has promised similar changes for New Zealand. All power to her. And if the gun lobby resists we need to stand up to them.

Solving things

If there’s one silver lining to this very dark cloud, it has been the way New Zealand has come together. Prime Minister Adern has been a real leader. Indeed, it seems from my confused perch here in Canberra that most New Zealanders have been real leaders. Kindness, flowers, donations. Tears. Unity. It feels like a country pulling together.

Terrorists want division. Hate grows amidst divides. There’s no undoing the tragedy. But for now, at least, New Zealand seems to be doing its best to stop hate spreading.

[Update – my views on the above are changing a bit. Specifically: I’m now inclined to think that dog-whistling politicians and media commentators did contribute in their own indirect way, even if they were far from the central cause. All the more reason for them to give it a rest. Also, NZ politicians have basically come out and said intelligence services were under-prepared re the alt right etc. All the more cause for a major attitude shift.]

December 20, 2018

In the dark

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:23 am

Nothing in Canberra is fully illuminated. The streetlights are small, dim, swallowed by gum trees.

In the suburbs, once you’ve learnt to watch for kangaroos, the effect is pleasant enough, but I don’t know why Garema Place, the heart of the city, has to be so dull.

The lack of light didn’t help me that evening as I cycled around looking for the vigil for the asylum seeker who’d died in an offshore prison. Killed for the crime of fleeing a war, and trying to start a safer life in Australia.

I ended up late. And in a better-lit place I would have chosen a different part of the crowd to stand at the back of.

The problem where I stood, it turned out, was that it was just a few meters away from a bench in the shadows, home to a group of drunks.

Not just any drunks either. They weren’t quietly getting pissed. They were loud, and from time to time they’d take to shouting, heckling the speakers at the vigil.

Like everyone else I stared away from them, intently ignoring, trying to focus on the stage. But then one of the drunks, a tall guy, with a barrel chest that gave into a beer gut strode over and stood next to me. He looked at me for a moment, his pissed blue eyes both purposeful and purposeless at the same time. He had a big flat face. I smiled politely and then looked at my shoes, hoping, I guess, that he’d vanish if I just ignored him hard enough.

Not to be.

He started shouting at the speaker. He was big, with one of those voices that are made to carry. Make to heckle. His sentences didn’t make sense. Although, on their own, some of the clauses did.

Where are you from? Cause I’m from fucken here mate.

I’m from fucken here. Who invited you?

I wasn’t the only person in the crowd trying to ignore him. Everyone was. But he wasn’t going away.

Thoughts were chasing themselves round my head: I’m going to have to do something, but what, what.

He was too drunk to reason with. Too big to manhandle.

Then the old guy came out of the crowd. He had pale skin, silver hair and glasses. He was tidily dressed, in the careful way of someone who never buys new clothes but keeps his old ones neat, mending them for decades.

He was tall. He wasn’t stocky, but he had a presence. He moved gently. Easily ignored. But impossible for the drunk guy to ignore by the time he’d stood straight in front of him, meeting his gaze.

Hey mate. Don’t shout. Listen.

He sounded calm. Certain. Quietly forceful. He looked like a Christian socialist. He looked like he had stared down cops on hundreds of picket lines.

Most days he would have won. Being right, and being sure, would have been enough.

But this wasn’t your ordinary drunk. He looked back. Held the gaze.

Who are you? Where are you from mate? Who invited you? I didn’t invite you. I’m from fucken here.

Then the nonsense made sense. I looked at the drunk, the shape of his face. His eyes were blue, he was too pissed to be anything really, but he was also an Aboriginal person.

Robbed of righteousness. The Christian Socialist stumbled, struggling now to be calm and forceful.

Well um, you can speak in a moment. But, um, let’s just let this guy finish first.

The drunk started shouting again. The Christian Socialist’s words grew quieter, kept stumbling, and couldn’t shut him up.

Some point during this stumbling a young, gangly guy, shorter than the drunk and the Christian Socialist, but taller than me, strode up. My reeling and racing mind placed him as having Indian or Latin American heritage. He had mop of black hair, held out of his eyes by lime green sunglasses, that looked like they might have been bought in a service station in the 1980s.

He slid between me and the Christian Socialist and got right in the drunk guy’s face.

Shit. That’s not the right approach, my thoughts raced to themselves.

He seemed certain though. Angry too.

Stop! Let the speaker finish!

Naturally, the drunk was having none of that. More belligerent than ever.

I’m from fucken here. Where are you from? He stuck with his winning line.

The thing is. The slender guy knew exactly where he was from.

I’m from the Tent Embassy. I’m a law keeper, he went on to name a tribe or language group from central Australia. Let the speaker finish.

Shit. My stumbling thoughts tripped over themselves. He’s not from Latin America. He’s an Indigenous Australian leader. And he looked so strong, so certain. He new his place.

One any other night he would have won the day just like that. But the drunk guy wasn’t just too drunk to reason. He was too drunk too listen. It took about five more exchanges before he even began to register that the other guy wasn’t an immigrant like the rest of us. Even then it only sunk so far in. Not quite far enough to make him care.

Still the bravery of the slender guy distracted the drunk. He was no longer shouting. Rather, the slender guy, the Christian Socialist and I ended up in a confused three way conversation.

I’m not Australian. I never really feel at home anywhere for that matter. But there have been a few drunks in my life. If they’re not out and out violent, you can wear them out with banal comments that go nowhere. That became my role.

You’re from here. Oh cool. Whereabouts? I’m from New Zealand. That’s not really here. Except when you’re there, I um guess.

And so it went until it ended. We wore the drunk out, and ultimately ran down the clock on him. The scheduled talks stopped. The crowd dispersed. The vigil was over. Even the drunk was too sensible to waste time heckling no one. So we dispersed too. I rode up to the slender guy, thanked him. Tried to find the Christian Socialist, but couldn’t. And then cycled home through the dimly lit streets of Australia’s capital.


November 4, 2018


Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 11:23 am

I don’t know what made them sprout. But they tore up the earth, shooting up. Imagine bamboo shoots taking hold in your garden. They grew around craters. Holes in land that had once been home to something else. Something so non-descript it was easier to remember the crater than the thing it had replaced.

It can’t have been the rain. There’d been a drought for most of the year. Economic geography, I wondered. Agglomeration. I asked around. No one seemed interested. One of my friends said, ‘I think they’ve changed a by-law, or something’.

No one can tell me why, but Canberra’s garden of frumpy, mercifully-short buildings, has become infested with cranes. As if one wandered in on the west wind, liked what it found, and radioed back to its relatives.

I really can’t remember what the cranes replaced. Which says something. There’s nothing beautiful about Canberra’s buildings – except they are easy to overlook. It would be a prettier city if it was sprinkled with towering spires. But it could be worse. The buildings don’t tower at all, which makes the sky, hills and trees easy to find.

The cranes are pretty in their way. Flags fly off them in the weekend. When they move on weekdays, gliding round their arcs, they have a soft grace. But there are so many. What’s coming in their wake? Maybe similarly low unobtrusive buildings, sculpted in contemporary styles? I doubt it. Canberra’s becoming a city, with suburbs that sprawl further and further to the North and South West. And so up it grows too.

Years ago I complained about how quiet Canberra was. People talk of bad old days when it was a hardship posting for civil servants. But can you imagine it choking on traffic jams? Or cut off from the hills by towering apartment complexes?

For now, there’s just cranes, all over the skyline, having sprouted in a sudden, looking pretty in their way, as Sunday’s west wind sets their flags fluttering like leaves.

October 21, 2018

Drought rain

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 4:33 pm

Even the gum trees on Mount Majura are brown. Autumn, winter, spring…almost no rain. Gardens are kept green by hoses, and hoses filled by a giant dam to the west of town. The fate of the farmers is fodder for politicians. People talk anxiously about bushfires in the summer if the dry doesn’t end soon.

It would be possible to ignore all this from the safety of the suburbs. No one’s turning off the taps. I don’t have stock to keep alive. But the thought, the threat, the impossibility of the dry spell that drags on unending catches you. You imagine yourself surrounded by thirsty nature. You become a rain watcher. I scan forecasts. I watch hopefully as dark clouds peak over the Brindabella Ranges. I tell people how much I love the smell of tarmac with the first drops of rain on it. I curse false alarms. I marvel at how towering thunder clouds can lumber over town, how you can hear the rumbling, how you can even smell the rain, and how it can all still come to nothing.

Yesterday the forecast was a 95% chance of rain. I watched the blue sky all morning, as impotent as a soccer fan who can do nothing as their team gets thrashed. I felt a thrill as a serious band of black came marching in from the west at midday.

I packed my camera and drove to find vantage points. I nodded cynically as I parked up amidst giant widely-spaced drops of rain that fell then stopped even as the sky boiled above me.


Then it finally came, riding in on the nor’wester, turning the town into a blur.

I fled off Red Hill as a lightning bolt hit black mountain, just getting into the car as a soaking sheet of water fell around me. Rain!


Or not. Within minutes it had stopped. Drought rain. No real change in the weather. Just a cloudburst followed by rain free sky again. This happened once more later in the afternoon. I took most of my photos of the trails of squalls as they moved away.


I ended my day drinking beer in the sun on our porch. A lovely evening for it. And the garden smelled beautiful – fresh and alive. But I made the mistake of looking at my phone. A chance of light showers. Then dry all week.


September 12, 2018

The shepard’s hut – 5 minute review

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 9:32 pm

Somewhere, days to the west of here, on the other edge of a continent, there’s farm country, poised between the sea, and the salt lakes and sand.

This is the country that’s home to Tim Winton’s novel ‘the shepard’s hut’. Home to the characters that pull you across the pages, home to the narrative has you hoping for a happy ending although, in the end, a hopeful ending’s all you get.

Yet for all the force of the narrative, it’s the land that makes this book — a landscape, not a portrait. Maybe it’s just me, taken as I am with the Australia that isn’t its people, but days after I reached the final page, with the characters beginning to fade, the abiding memory of the book has become the scenery it’s set within. Arid, yet alive, although governed by the harshest of laws.

Winton doesn’t just use description to conjure the land. Much is added by the messy business of hunting, and the knowledge the characters need to stay alive. This is all part of the story too, but the book could lose the bush-lore and still keep its central tale in tact. Much of the purpose of the art of survival seems to be to add to the picture. To help you the reader feel as much as possible of the colours and contours of the country between the last of the farms, and the beginning of the desert proper.

In the end it’s pretty easy to care for the characters, but even if you didn’t you could happily read this story just for the land alone.

September 5, 2018

On the other side of the curtain

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 2:39 pm

I’ve never been so close to Australia, even though I’ve lived here for years.

The thing is, in that time the people I’ve lived amongst come from a place you could call Planet Development. Educated, urbane, cosmopolitan. Internationalists. Outward looking. Prone to pronouncing h’s. Not prone to ending sentences with ‘but’.

No better or worse than anyone else, but familiar. Similar to the people from Planet Development back home in New Zealand.

Here in hospital (two and a half weeks and counting) Planet Development is a long way away. Plenty of people — nurses, doctors, other staff — come from overseas. And the Australian born staff are diverse too. But the staff don’t have time to talk. On the other hand, I share my room. Me and one other patient, separated by a thin plastic curtain. In the same room, day and night.

First, there was the old woman, who snored like an opossum trapped in a roof. Who was friendly. Who confided that her husband had died two months ago. At night she’d wake from dreams crying ‘no, no, I don’t want to visit the grave.’ When my drip started beeping in the night, which it did on a whim, she would shout, words breaking over the bow of her Australian accent: ‘Shart up. Shart up!’. She’d always apologise the next morning. “I wasn’t swearin’ at you. Just that machine.”

Then, there was the guy who had the television as loud as it would go 20 hours a day. During the night I wanted to scream: ‘shart up, shart up!’ But I put my headphones on instead. He was friendly, pale and in his sixties. Keen for a chat any time after 5am.

“I’ve been a tradie. And a sparkie.”

When I told him I was  a political scientist, he told me he had friends who were rich, paused for a bit, then started talking again. He talked about hunting roos just above the escarpment. How it seemed a cruel thing to do, but there were too many of them. How he loved the peaceful mornings in the country. How a few years ago the doctors had seared away bone cancer with radiation, and how he needed a hip replacement as a result. His kidneys were buggered. One of his brothers wanted to give him one of theirs. But it, “wasn’t worth it for an old bloke like me.”

The Liberal Party were busy dispatching Malcolm Turnbull while we were room mates. When his family came round they huffed about in collective disgruntlement with politics. Not that the Liberals mess seemed to be helping Labor much. Pollys were the same he grumped when Bill Shorten intruded on the TV.

He was friendly. He was disgruntled. He watched politics on the TV until the news melted into infomercials, then until the promises of the infomercials were replaced by the sure footed male certainty of the footie commentators. Cancer in the bones, buggered joints, quiet country mornings. Grumpy at the pollies. Friendly to me. Melancholy.

He was replaced by a woman from a small country town not so far from Canberra. She was terrified by what had happened to her. Telling the exact same tale in tears to anyone she could reach on the phone the first day she was admitted. The pain, the misdiagnosis, the internal bleed, the screaming at the medical staff, the doctor who finally got it right. Slowly the tears and fear ebbed away as a long line of friends came to visit her. She worked in a club, in her sixties maybe. She had a queue of health problems. With her friends she exchanged tales of woe in Australian so perfect I wished I had a book so I could write down the idioms. There were violent boyfriends. Drunks. Husbands addicted to pokies. People asking for money who had no right. Women encumbered with good for nothing men. But also friends, and families, and her family, which had fractured then reformed. They all came to her bedside.

When one or other of our drips started beeping at night we’d check in on each other. When I lept out of bed embarrassed and swearing after I tipped over my pee bottle she scolded me in a caring way for putting weight on my leg. “Get back in bed, you’ll hurt yerself. The nurse ill take care of it.”

We saw each other all of two times. Other than that it was conversations through the curtain. But when it came time for her to be discharged it was hard not to feel a pang of loneliness all of a sudden. And easy to wish her well.

It’s not as if the immigrants Australia of many of the hospital staff isn’t the real thing. And Australians from Planet Development are Australians none the less. But anthropologists ignore capital cities and traipse into jungles or out to remote villages because that’s where they think they’ll find yesterday’s native, still alive today, impervious as globalisation flows around them. Here in hospital, I’ve found yesterday’s Australian, just there, on the other side of the curtain, battling away as the informercials flow around them.

September 1, 2018

A tangle

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 9:51 pm

It’s amazing what you can take for granted. The long sweeping bay. The kangaroos on the beach. The clear water, bending the morning sun into twisting patterns, tangles of light  on the sandy sea floor.

I’m too smart to take surfing for granted. So — even though the bar was a bit short, ending in a snapping close out in inch-deep water; and even though there were two other guys out, meaning I couldn’t have every wave I wanted — I was revelling in the little lefts on my longboard. Arcing along the outside section, fading when the wave backed off, and threading the odd one through the shallow closeout at the end.

I can’t remember the rest of the wave now, so I’m guessing it was nothing special. All I remember is a painful clunk at the end of the ride as my board hit my leg after I’d decided at the last minute to leap over the closeout, rather than surf across the shallow sand.

It hurt. Worse than any other collision I’ve ever had with my board. But the pain backed off and, although I was a little slow to my feet on the next wave, I didn’t think any more of it. I knew the warfarin I take because of my artificial valve would mean my blood would take longer to clot. But the injury was to my leg — not my head — and I decided it couldn’t end up as anything worse than an oversized bruise.

I caught a bunch more waves unaware how wrong I was.

By the time Jo and I got back to Canberra that afternoon I could barely walk, and my thigh was so swollen it had lost its curves. Off to hospital.

It’s amazing how strange other people are. Or, if you pause to think about it, it’s easy to take for granted how strange you are. The first night in accident and emergency was a good reminder. My swollen leg hurt too much for me to sleep.

Most of the people in the beds around me weren’t so different — the man slumped over his knees, his hand resting on his daughter’s knee; the old guy in the bed next to me, with a cough that was so full of phlegm it threatened to overwhelm his dogged lungs at any point. They weren’t so far away from an imaginable future. Or a slightly different life.

But then there was the family. You could tell from the way they strode up and down the corridor, and from the unmoderated crack of their Aussie accents that they were normal as fuck.

“I got it on me phone”

“The fight?”


Loud grunt.

“I’m his mother, I can’t be seeing that.”

“We’ll use it when we sue ’em.”

Loud Grunt.

It took me a while to work out that Loud Grunt was one of the losers in a melee (the nurses’ word for it). His cousin, also a loser, was also in the bed next to him. Their team clearly hadn’t done well in the battle.

Loud Grunt was grunting because his jaw was broken in two places. He was loud because of the morphine I guess. Almost ebullient. Caught in the post-match analysis.

“We reckon it was one of those girls who ‘it ‘im with the pole”

Affirmative grunt. There was a woman with him — his wife? his sister? — who somehow understood what he was saying. She translated.

“Yeah definitely one of them.”

Grunt, grunt.

“E says he should have hit im before the others joined in. He won’t make that mistake next time.”

“We’ll sue em, now we got the video.”

His cousin also had a broken jaw. But he didn’t make any loud grunts. Maybe he hadn’t been given as much morphine. Maybe he simply wasn’t as resilient. Maybe he felt caught in the tangle of his messed-up family. He just let out quiet forlorn moans from time to time. I imagined him holding in tears.

It took me a day to make it up to the orthopaedics ward. By this time I was in agony. The pain killers didn’t do much. Or if they did, my leg was utterly wrecked. It wasn’t until they sent me for surgery to drain the fluid from my muscle — compartment syndrome was the diagnosis — that I started feeling any better.

And this is where I’m typing from now. In bed, recovering in between setbacks (I started bleeding again at one point), tangled up amidst a drip, an electric inflating sock for blood clots, and a drain from the wound. Tangled up and promising myself that I’ll never take my mobility for granted again.

Loud affirmative grunt.

June 3, 2018


Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 1:12 pm

I was on a weekend break at the beach. I only started thinking about eschatology that evening because the word itself tastes funny and bizarre.

The early Christians thought they were living in end times. The turn of the first millennium brought prophecies of doom too. As the year 2000 approached, me and my backpacker buddies laughed — a little uneasily — at every new claim.

I’ve always wondered what doomsday cults do the morning after.

I understand the temptation though. In part, because nuclear weapons and an unravelling environment provide real reasons for worry. In part, because everyone’s ego wants their story to mean more than it does — wants it to be part of a climactic scene.

In part because all times are end times. Now is the end of the past. And the future is on its way, about to wipe out now forever too.

The next morning, a southerly storm washed up the coast, and I drove from bay to bay trying to find surfable waves. Finally, making the most of the moment off a headland with finicky frustrating surf, but just enough waves racing into the bay to leave me tired and happy when I finally limped up the beach.

May 11, 2018

High lands

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:30 pm

My seat number got changed at the gate and again as I got on the plane. It wasn’t exactly orderly flying. But I ended up by a window. And that’s where I got my first view of the Highlands from. Propellers whirring, the old plane straining. We arced away from the coast and up over mountains, only to find — instead of the other side — a world on top of the world. A giant plateau, cut by valleys and with more mountains piled up in the background. The incredible fertile green that everyone talks about.

There’s more than the story to that. The interviews. The energetic officials talking about kidnappings and death threats. The stories. The problems.

But for now settle on this: folded lands, small hamlets, afternoon light, smoke in the air from camp fires, and towers of clouds piled up against unknown ridges.

January 1, 2018

Into the harbour

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 2:43 pm

I can almost remember the first time I surfed the Pipes. Half a bay, halfway along the gravel road to the harbour mouth. Rock reefs at either end and a beach of greywacke pebbles. A valley stuffed with gorse, and concrete pipes, almost large enough to stand in, leftover from when the sewer was built, piled up on the inland side of the road. To get to the Pipes you had to cycle or walk, the road was closed except to the odd truck that rumbled by on its way to a distant quarry.

Surfing there was a rite of passage if you grew up in Eastbourne. Unlike the beach back in the harbour where I learnt to surf, the Pipes broke over rock and gravel. Unlike the smaller points further in, the Pipes got enough swell to produce real waves — sometimes.

That first surf wasn’t good. My almost-memory is green water, a waning southerly, and the frustration of small waves that went nowhere, breaking all at once. That was a rite of passage if you grew up where I did. I remember the frustration of the waves interwoven with the perennial cheated feeling felt by teenage surfers growing up in a harbour. Other people got to surf real waves, me and my mates lamented every day until we finally got our drivers’ licences.

Occasionally, the Pipes actually gets good – I have memories of that – once you’ve worked out the right swell, wind and tide. Even when we had our drivers’ licences, even when there were other options, we would still walk or ride to the Pipes if things looked right.

Last week wasn’t really right – the strange, sunny, summer southerly storm had too much west in it, so the hills did nothing to shelter the waves from the gale that made the swell. The water was a warm green, but torn up by squalls. Still, the surf was marching past the reefs at the harbour mouth, and big enough to make it to the Pipes. And living in Wellington you get used to the wind.

What is more, living in Canberra, the odds of being back home for a big southerly swell are low. I didn’t need a guarantee of good waves to get me walking down that gravel road, where trucks have been replaced by triathletes and mountain bikes. The wind wasn’t right but I was pretty confident there would be waves. I was less confident I’d be able to surf them. Living with arthritis I’ve become used to the risk of failing in the surf. Certain types of waves won’t forgive the slow, strange way my back and hips force me to get to my feet. My inflammation levels fluctuate day to day. Unless I’m too sick to surf, I never know in advance how a surf will work out. After all those years riding it I ought to be able to surf the Pipes. But after all those failures I was anxious and unsure as I stood, my board kicking under my arm, by a gap in the rocks, getting ready to leap onto the back of a white water and paddle as fast as I could away from the point before the next wind-driven wave rumbled by. With no idea when I’d get the chance to surf the Pipes again, I wanted the surf to work.

I did everything right – I paddled out fine. I waited in the right place. I chose the right wave, catching the corner of white water that forms after the swell hits boils of dry rocks on the outside reef. With my memory leading the way those parts were easy.

Then, then, then…I got to my feet. Fast enough, on a wave forgiving enough to allow for me. I cruised for a moment, following the last of the bend of the outside reef, before angling into the bay, my body, my board, the wave, all cooperating. There’s no frustration. No cheated feeling. No wave breaking all at once. Instead, amidst the gale, and the arthritis, there’s me, going faster and faster as the swell steepens, changing my line with the curve of the wave, flying past surfers paddling out, past illness, down the point, into the harbour.

August 15, 2017

The presenter

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:57 am

His speech would pause and then dash forwards. Pause and dash. Tension and release. His tone rose and fell. Words snapped shut for emphasis.

All of this brought the ideas to life, made them look crisp and respectable like he did in his expensive suit. But if you listened, if you tried to follow where each individual train of thought was going, all you found was ideas that wove about, flurried enticingly, and went nowhere in the end.

The audience waxed — caught in his energy — and then waned as the temperature and lack of oxygen in the large grubby lecture hall imposed an unavoidable drowsiness.

August 12, 2017

Ghost stories

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 6:51 pm

The town lay in the hook of a great grey bay. On a hill above a grubby port. Hemmed in by giant, forest-cloaked mountains. The clouds never cleared. It could rain for weeks on end. I had to work with a local team observing elections. I didn’t speak the language. I never really knew who was lying to me and who was telling the truth.

The hotel had thick metal gates. There was no question of going out at night. A waitress from the hotel’s restaurant told me how afraid she was walking to and from work. Even during the day, I was anxious whenever I walked out on the streets. The ute we rented some days was missing a front-passenger seatbelt. The first time I reached for it the driver told me it had been cut out and used to tie someone up in a car-jacking.

The room had a tiny TV and a giant fake leather couch. The air-conditioning made me cough. Every day as I typed away on my computer I would be interrupted mid-morning by the woman who cleaned the rooms. She was from Bougainville and had pitch black skin. She wanted to go home she told me, but she needed the work. Occasionally, my awkward comments and attempts at chatter would cause her to smile, or even laugh, but usually all I would get was curt, cold replies.

One night as I went to bed two men started talking in heated tones in the room next to mine. I was numb with bone ache and tired. I felt irritated, but went to sleep nonetheless.

I was a nervous child. I’ve never watched horror movies. I had an older cousin who relished them though. He also took great joy at retelling every detail, to me, alongside ghost stories of his own. So I grew up frightened of the dark, convinced there were beasts in the gully below our house, and fully aware what poltergeists were.

I woke about an hour later. Now the men were shouting in the room next to me. An argument was worth worrying about. There were lots of guns about. And elections could be particularly violent. Two voices, perhaps three. Shouting. Fervent. Furious. What were they saying? I put my ear to the wall, but couldn’t catch the rapid-fire pijin. There was so much anger and intensity in their words, but slowly, as I listened, I came to figure they weren’t arguing. There might be interruptions but arguments go back and forth. But they were all shouting simultaneously. Not coordinated. They weren’t chanting. There was no unity. Just rapid, individual angry, endless streams of words. Cautiously, I opened the door out to the courtyard the rooms were around. The shouting was harder to hear out there. But there was no one round, just florescent light. I closed the door again. What were they doing? On drugs? Worshipping something? These three voices going on and on. I stood for a bit in my room. There was nothing I could do. I could try and find a guard. But the rule of thumb, that everyone — especially the unarmed security guards — followed, for surviving, was don’t involve yourself in other people’s business. The nearest police officer who would have cared in the slightest was in Queensland.

Who were they? What were they doing? What were they…

With nothing better to do I stuffed my earplugs as hard as I could into my ears. Stomped on my irrational childhood fears and my sensible adult concerns. And I willed myself back to the weariness of a guy with a million things to get done in a place where it was hard to get anything done.

When I woke the next morning it was raining. The shouting was gone. Complete silence from the room. Just the sound of cars coming and going and food being prepared in the kitchen. I stopped worrying about ghosts, started thinking about breakfast, and started – as usual – worrying about work.

March 7, 2017


Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 9:06 pm

The plane smelt of farts. It was filled with well-muscled white men, and a gorgeous couple with diplomatic passports. Minerals and Australian diplomats. Welcome to Papua New Guinea. In my safety briefing I was told, “we’re going at one car-jacking a day”.

So I’m sitting in my room on the seventh floor of the hotel. Inside the fences. A personal GPS locator with a panic button blinking. Struggling with data. Avoiding writing presentations. Staring our the window as the sunset flushes colours across the mountains east of town. Looking down at the city, wishing it was Honiara, where I could walk about during the day. Wishing I knew the place better, so I could work out my odds. Wanting to say sorry to everyone for being on the comfortable side of those fences. Eager not to catch scabies from the bedsheets, like one of my colleagues. Awkwardly trying to be friendly and polite. Trying not to be an arrogant outsider. Stumbling because I’m self-concious, and because trying not to be something isn’t what we were designed for.

The soft smoke of every third world city is adding haze to dusk, and below the road is losing its Jeeps. The vendors have packed up their cardboard and beads, and headed home. Wishing I knew more. Lonely. And happy in the blurry view.

November 13, 2016


Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 11:12 am

It happens quite often, but it’s particularly acute today, after flight, after flight, after flight. Jet lagged and tired. The sky outside Sydney airport is blue and billowing. The coast we flew over this morning had golden turns to the horizon. It looked so empty after London. I have no good reason. But there’s that feeling again. The desire to quit everything, especially the weeks ahead, buy a ticket on a plane, and go surfing…

October 3, 2016

Dodged a bullet

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 2:38 pm

People say that Windows 10 is much, much better than Windows 8. I never used Windows 8. The more I endure Windows 10, the more I feel I must of dodged one heck of a bullet with Windows 8.

July 13, 2016

Snow in Canberra

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 9:59 am

It snowed on me this morning. As I rode to work just before dawn. As the first cockatoos swirled out of the gum trees. White flakes drifting in the beam of my light. Snowing as I trundled past kangaroos chewing grass on playing fields. Snowing as I wove along the bike trail through the suburbs. Snowing as I passed cold joggers. Still snowing when I got to campus. Dark, blurry clouds racing the westerly gale.

The flurries never quite settled, but the hills to the east and west of town were white enough to look like somewhere else. All this in a land of deserts and droughts. In a city where it gets so hot in summer it barely feels safe to cross the campus in the middle of the day. In a country that advertises itself with beaches and snorkeling. Snow. Happy. Pretty. Flakes of snow.

May 3, 2016

A black and white sea

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:09 am



April 30, 2016

An eagle!

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 5:29 pm

Something in the eagle’s flight put me in desperate need of a photograph. I scrambled to get my camera out. I fumbled round. I turned dials. I changed settings. I dropped my lens cap. I got a moderately bad picture.


And the thing was, the thing that made its flight so enticing was nothing a photo would ever catch. It was its size, and the slow, efficient movement of its wings. Its glide.

I haven’t learnt my lesson though.

March 19, 2016

The sky above our street

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 2:59 pm


Going places above the languid summer trees.

March 1, 2016


Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 9:24 am

Even though — with their call, and soaring and surfing in the wind — currawongs are probably the most beautiful bird in Canberra, it would be pointless trying to photograph them. Their beauty doesn’t sit still. In photos they look like crows.

Corellas, on the other hand, are easy to miss. A small pale cockatoo. They don’t have the colours of galahs or the bright yellow crest of sulphur crested cockatoos. And yet in photos…






February 26, 2016


Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 6:29 pm

Sailing, trailing, travelling, fading.

terence clouds and tree

February 15, 2016

Coming in to land…

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:31 am

…on a swaying wire. Nowhere near as easy, I imagine, as they make it look.


February 10, 2016

A bird on a wire

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:29 am

Or, more technically, a Corella, gnawing at the insulation of a wire.


February 9, 2016

Alone on the lake

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 11:39 am

The beauty of our Lake George car park is that we’re almost always alone. By ourselves in the space of the flat dry lake bed. Taking in the view of the wind turbines on our own.

On Sunday there was another car in the car park though. A rough looking Holden or Ford. Its fuel cap had been prized off. Its driver’s face was pudgy. His hair thinning and ginger. He had a paunch and was holding a large bottle of Coke. He was wearing a high viz top: tradesman’s uniform. He looked self-concious. Or maybe I felt self-concious.

He barely replied to Jo’s cheerful greeting. ‘What a bogan’, I muttered.

He got out of his car, got out of his high-viz top and pulled out an old cloth shopping bag. Beer, I figured. Then he reached into his car and got something I didn’t expect: a tripod.

He ignored us and walked out onto the lake bed. Maybe 100 metres out he set up the tripod and put a camera with a telephoto lens on it.

And that’s how he spent his evening. As we ate our dinner in the car, and went for a walk, he took photos of the eastern edge of the lake, and its windmills, with the light ebbing, and the sky filling up with colour.

And all of us, ‘bogans’ and suburban snobs, enjoyed the peace and that space–still big enough, it turns out, to leave us happily alone.


February 8, 2016


Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:26 am

Corellas surfing the wire in a south wind.


February 3, 2016

Boy racer blur

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:23 am


February 1, 2016

The skies

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:18 am

The skies over Canberra have forgotten how to be clear blue. They are either thick with thunder cloud, or traffic-jammed with cirrus and contrails caught on the west wind.


January 31, 2016

Water and flower

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 4:15 pm


The flower the same as ever; the water, frozen in time by the speed of the shutter.

January 8, 2016

Gum trees

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 6:48 pm

The patterns on their trunks looking like silver grey sea and jagged tan continents.

January 1, 2016

Utopia? Bust?

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 1:34 pm

Utopia or Bust is eloquent. I share Benjamin Kunkel’s despair with the world we live in. There has been some social improvement in some places, and a lot of technological progress. But we ought to be able to do much better than we do. We ought to live in a fairer world that parcels out the fruits of our technologies in ways that raises most people’s well-being to levels a lot higher than they are today. We ought to end discrimination. The trouble with Utopia or Bust is it provides no cause to believe we can. Instead there are Marxist literary critics (yawn), the contradictions of David Harvey, the confusions of Slavoj Žižek, and so on.

Meanwhile, history and theory give us very good cause to believe there are no utopias to be had. Look at those dreamed up to date:

(Setting aside racist lunacy that is clearly evil) the main right wing utopian doctrine is libertarianism, where the state is a ‘night watchman’ (or in some variants—which could only seem plausible after smoking something—non-existent, replaced by competing security firms). The state provides for private property rights, protects against invasion and does nothing else. Taxes are low, bludgers are gone, economic growth is spectacular. What’s not to like? A lot. There is no evidence that the main driver of economic growth is incentives born of low taxes. In reality much of the technological change that drives growth has come from government investment. And the individual genius that brings new ideas comes from being well and well-educated. Nothing suggests a libertarian utopia will maximise these attributes, except for a fortunate few. Being well and well-educated have non-instrumental worth too: they are part of the good life. And history has shown that some pubic provision is needed to extend such welfare to most people in a society. Then there’s the issue of the environment. How does a libertarian government take care of common pool resources? On the basis of my limited exposure, most libertarians simply deny the issues exist, although I’ve also heard of the idea of issuing private property rights for every known common pool resource, including the air we breathe. Can you imagine the bureaucracy? Ah freedom! The final hurdle for libertarianism is that could never be democratic—have a look at election results, libertarian parties never perform well, presumably because most voters sensibly like at least some of what their governments do. So if libertarianism were ever to come about it would be by imposition. Imposed freedom. Moving along…

Libertarianism’s distant relative (not on speaking terms) on the left is anarchism. Which, strictly speaking, means the absence of the state, and the absence of private property rights. Anarchist collective action is based around cooperation, anarchist production around non-excusive title to resources. (I say strictly speaking because quite often anarchism is defined by what it is against—i.e. ‘the state, when the state is unjust’ rather than what it’s for. Seeing as this blog is about alternatives, I will ignore such antagonistic definitions.) The big problem with anarchism (as defined) is that we aren’t a cooperative enough species to be able to engage in large scale collective action without some coercion and rules—in other words a state. One alternative would be a world of villages and bands. A world free of states! But it also wouldn’t be a utopia. It would, plus some legacy technologies from the bygone age of states, be most of human history. It would be bereft of the specialisation that trade allows. It wouldn’t be free of predation between groups. It’s also likely there would be coercion within groups too. We aren’t that nice a creature. Perhaps aware of all this, many anarchists spend more time decrying the evils of the state than they do talking about how their alternative would work. They’re right that many states are abysmal and even the best are far from perfect. But far from perfect is a lot better than a return to life in villages or hunter-gatherer bands.

Communism barely needs a mention any more. Nevertheless (with respect to how it actually existed, rather than Marx’s effectively anarchist end-stage): a state which is almost entirely the government brings with it a big risk of the over-concentration of power (Stalin, Mao, etc.) Perhaps this could be offset by coupling communism with robust democratic institutions. But communism usually has very strong internal opponents meaning it’s not clear that this could actually, practically, happen, prior to these opponents being crushed. And history suggests once states acquire a taste for crushing, it takes a long time for them to lose it. Radially remaking a society would also require more than one electoral term, so I would imagine that any genuinely communist government would be very tempted to do away with elections. Even if communism could deal with issues of power, there remains the problem of the inefficiencies of a state-planned economy. States aren’t able to aggregate information as adroitly as markets do. One option would be to couple communism (a very muscular state, collectively owned means of productions) with markets. I concede I don’t know how well this worked out for Tito (although I’m guessing not that well on the basis of the fact his vision, not to mention Yugoslavia, no longer exists), but on the basis of the present I think the most likely outcome of a muscular state and markets, would be accompanying concentrations of wealth—and, ultimately the end of popular control of the means of production. Something that looks a lot like today’s China, which is better than Mao’s China, but hardly a workers’ paradise.

This ought to be the point where I start clucking happily about social democracy as the best option we’ve found. But that’s hard to do too. Be it 1970s style muscular social democracy, or today’s third way, social democracy has never been able to muster quite enough tax revenue to provide social services that are as good as they could be, and its social safety net is always threadbare. It works quite well for the voting middle class, but not nearly as well for those on the periphery. It is also not that democratic. Economic inequality brings political inequality. And human failings to do with the way we see ‘others’ often see voters distracted by non-issues (from the perspective of their own welfare) such as refugees, rather than real issues (inequality, climate change). There are things we don’t talk about but should (raising taxes to provide for good health care into the future). There are things we talk far too much about but needn’t (should gays be allowed to get married; of course they should; it astounds me that opposition to this basic right exists). The only real defence of social democracy that it is (to paraphrase Paul Krugman, paraphrasing Churchill) the least worst system we’ve come up with.

For now, least-worst is a tolerable place. As Steven Radelet, Charles Kenny, and Steven Pinker show in recent books, in part because of the gifts technology has brought, in part because of genuine social change associated with the near miraculous, but frighteningly fragile, expansion of humans’ spheres of concern, and in part because of our ability to muddle through, life for most of the people on our planet is better than it has ever been.

Yet the big questions remain. Will this continue? (Only good luck prevented the cold war from becoming a nuclear war. We aren’t doing enough to prevent climate change The world’s sole superpower is a mess.) And can’t we do better? Make our countries more caring, our democracies more deliberative, our power more diluted?

And, if we can, how?

If there’s a left wing book that seriously, and non-dogmatically, asks that question, I would be a very eager reader.

December 30, 2015


Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 5:32 pm

I didn’t pay them much attention. They looked unsure about the small changing shed attached to the public toilets. Her lycra bathing suit was unfair to her shape. He was pale. They paused at the water’s edge, then carefully stepped in.

I’d never thought about swimming in Lake Burley Griffin, in the middle of Canberra. Man made by damming a creek. Closed when the algae become toxic. Plagued with carp. Sad little beaches hemmed in by slimy stones.

But as Jo and I sat on the park bench–me thinking about work, families, and side-effects–they swum out around the triathlon training buoys. Calm. The water was pale, mirror-blue. Tiny ripples turned the reflections of trees with yellow flowers into brush strokes. He swam perfectly: noticeably smooth and fast. She wasn’t far behind. At the pace they were going there must have been tightness in their lungs, and aching in their arms. But from where we watched there was nothing except easy forward motion. They swum round the first buoy, then the second, taking maybe twenty minutes before returning to the lake’s edge. Nothing awkward or uncertain now. They both had the muscles of swimmers, and that done-something, after exercise glow. We got back on our bikes, me doing a better job for a while of watching, not thinking.

December 20, 2015

Rain again

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 1:50 pm

The day before was one of those days with a swallowing sky. Burning blue, no clouds. A hot, dry wind.

Today started the same, until the thunderstorm. The downpour wasn’t long, but in its wake it drizzled all afternoon. A horrid grey drizzle, with a sky filled up with low, clingy clouds. And that determined rain that soaks you, without being heavy.

There are places I would have complained about riding home in it. But not Canberra. Not riding along bike trails amongst avidly green trees, and by a grateful smelling soil. Not riding past canals that were flushing with water. Not riding past brand new ponds occupied by busy, happy ducks.

I keep writing about it, but that’s because it’s such a strange thing to find yourself liking in a place. The fact that its so hot and dry as to make rain a treat. Even when your shoes are sodden, and there’s a creeping damp claiming your clothes, and as you try to avoid the puddles sprawled across the cycleway.

November 1, 2015


Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 2:21 pm

A strange thing to like about Australia: rain. Staves off bush fires. Makes the garden happy. And leaves everything smelling like a quenched thirst.


Filed under: Aortic Valves,Reactive Arthritis — terence @ 2:17 pm
Tags: , ,

The seizure meant more medicine. Both to reduce the risk of another one, and to try and eliminate the spells of confusion I’ve been having ever since surgery. That one fully fledged seizure had the neurologists more inclined, even if still uncertain, to classify the episodes of confusion as a type of epilepsy.

And so I started adding anti-epileptics on top of Warfarin, Losartan, and Humira. First came Sodium Valproate, smooth purple pills in soft plastic foil packaging. I was so worried about the side effects—hallucinations, depression, strange behaviour—that, because Jo was travelling, I asked a colleague to call Jo if I seemed weird, and asked a friend to check in on me.

There were no side effects. Nothing. And that was the problem with Sodium Valproate. I didn’t have any more tonic-clonic seizures, but I’d only ever had one in the eight years since surgery, so they weren’t frequent events. And the spells of confusion, which were the best yardstick of treatment efficacy, kept trundling through my life as they always had.

And so I added Kepra, starting on a low dose and slowly increasing it. Kepra did something, perhaps: about the time I got to a therapeutic dose I went six weeks without any spells of confusion. This was at least twice as long as I’d ever gone before. Jo and I started to hope intensely. I would be able to drive again. Jo wouldn’t have to accompany me every surf. Life would be normal in its unusual kind of way. But then the spells came back.

So I kept upping the dose of Kepra, but with this came a mild lethargy, and although the spells were less frequent they were still quite frequent.

Next I started Tegretol, increasing the dose while I weaned myself off Sodium Valproate. And now I’m on the full dose, with the useless Sodium Valproate no longer in my pill box. As I type this I’ve been about three weeks (and carefully counting) without any confused spells. This is long enough for the medicine to be promising me, but not yet making any guarantees—I’ve been three weeks often enough before. And I now know that even six weeks doesn’t necessarily mean problem solved.

Tegretol hasn’t been easy either. It impedes the absorption of Warfarin, so I’m on an ever increasing dose of Warfarin, wondering if my liver can cope (although there’s no medical reason to think it can’t). Worse, Tegretol is flattening me, in a slightly sad sort of way. It makes it hard to find the energy. It makes chores feel like a chore. It makes it harder to believe in things in the way you need to believe. This isn’t insufferable, or impenetrable: after surfing I still glow; and happy conversations still bounce along. Reading still works, more or less. And if I try I can push back against the effect.

So, here I am, mostly hoping the Tegretol works, but part of me hoping it doesn’t. Because if it doesn’t I will wean myself off it as-fast-as-I-can.

Disclaimer 1: I realise things could be worse.

Disclaimer 2: My medical situation is my medical situation. Yours will be different. Make your choices on the basis of what medical professionals tell you, not what you read here.

August 16, 2015

How surfing works

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 3:51 pm

Here’s how it works.

There’s a shrieking nor’west gale, the sort that has Wellington clinging to its hillsides. It is sunny, but the sky’s muffled by salt haze. I get a glimpse of the ocean as I turn down the road to the beach at Titahi Bay – a torn, grey-green sea, tatters of foam and crests of waves stretched out to Mana Island.

I park in the bottom carpark, in the shelter of a low bank. It’s Friday, I’m recovering from a relapse and only working part time – this is my day off for the week. In the back I have a bigger than usual surfboard, to forgive the slowness that comes with arthritic limbs. I’m the only person there.

The day before we’d had our work Christmas do. The job had been a godsend, arriving when I needed it, coinciding with treatment and better mobility. Less pain and a new routine. The NGO was like a family too, friendly and happy for all its idiosyncrasies. Which made what happened at the Christmas party even worse. One of the guys, who everyone, including me, liked a lot, ended up shouting abuse at one of the women staff of the party venue. There’s more to the story: his explosion of anger, the words he used, the proximity to violence, the unfairness of his past and how it might forgive him, but that’s not my tale.

I’d spent the morning trying not to think about it. Trying. The words he used; the way he flipped; so near to violence; would he lose his job? Amongst all the things that go wrong on our planet it was nothing, of course. But it was sad enough, and close enough, for me to be chewing it over, again and again.

I get out of the car, holding the door against the wind, walk to a perch where I can watch the sea, and look out to the south end of the bay. There at the base of low cliffs, a point of slippery, angled rocks juts out. I try to watch, but it’s too windy: in between the salt spray and sand I can’t stare long enough to gauge the quality of the waves. I trudge back to the car, open the door, holding it with one hand, and fish out some cheap, scratched service station sunglasses with the other.

You know enough about surfing to know how it works. Toned young men in board shorts, yoga-enabled women. Gold beaches with warm water. Perfect waves, healthy bodies, ability, youth, mates. The appeal is obvious. That’s how it works.

The sunglasses did the trick, they stopped the sand and spray, and I could watch the sea.

Titahi Bay wants for a lot: most of the time the northern end of the South Island deprives it of groundswells, the cornerstone of good surf. (These are swells from far away storms, groomed by travel, which arrive ready to be perfect – think surf from distant cyclones on the East Coast of Australia, or swells from the Southern Indian Ocean in Bali). Then there are the sand shoals off Mana Island that further sap the waves of their strength. Then there are Wellington’s endless nor’westerlies, which are onshore. And yet, Titahi Bay has its tricks. Somehow bathymetry and the bay’s bend tidy up the storm surf that bashes Wellington’s west coast and make it manageable. And, just a little, the wind rides up over the hills, meaning that out in the line-up it’s a bit less windy than anywhere else. Then there’s that rocky point at the bay’s southern end.

Hunched against the wind, I watch a stormy wave stand up on it, lurching, breaking over a shallow ledge, peeling, slowing for a moment, and then unfolding quickly along an underwater finger of rock. I imagine the feel of riding it, the lines to take, the race to the shallows…

I run back to the car, contort myself into my wetsuit and wetsuit boots. I pull on a wetsuit hood. I stretch. I jog down to the water’s edge, past dilapidated boatsheds, my board kicking under my arm in the wind.

In the water I’m alone: no one in the surf, no one else even checking the surf. The sea’s turbulent and my eyes are stinging, but I’ve been surfing the rock point half my life, so I know where to wait, lined up with a gully in the hill and a pyramid shaped rock. A big set comes, signalled by blown foam on the outside sandbanks. The waves start to crumble out there, then back off in the deeper water just out from the point. I paddle over the first wave, and spin in front of the second. It’s big, perhaps twice my height. I’m close to the rocks, above the underwater ledge, the right place to catch it. I paddle, just one or two strokes, enough to have me moving forward as the wave pulls me to its crest. As the ledge trips it, the wave changes in a moment from a mound of swell to a vertical drop off. I get to my feet with the sea falling under me. I’m mid-air. I land, the edge of my board’s rail getting purchase. I’m hit by breaking water, but I’m there, tilting, angling, turning, using momentum, and the water’s curve to drive myself out onto the wall. I change my line, trimming over the slower part of the wave, adjusting again, then I fly along the last section, racing as it crashes across the shallow inside reef. Drop, turn, speed, turn, flight. As the wave reaches deeper water off the point I angle over the back. I’m not Kelly Slater. I did nothing spectacular. The wave was tricky rather than perfect. The water is so murky I can’t see my hands as I paddle. The salt spray is nearly blinding. But: drop, turn, speed, turn, flight! I paddle back out as fast as I can, singing happily.

Two hours later the sun is lower, the green-grey has hints of yellow and orange. I’m worn out. Wave after wave, on my own. Back in the carpark I have an after-exercise glow, and a calm—from the storm, from finding the right line, ride after ride. And from making the waves, from the rock ledge to the inside shallows. I’m not thinking about other things.

Warm water, perfect swells, flawless reefs, I’ve surfed all that. It’s great, easier to enjoy, but the essential ingredients were there at Titahi Bay that afternoon. That’s how it works.

July 29, 2015


Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:57 pm

We were of an age when mothers were starting to worry about marijuana. This was a reasonable concern. I was starting to dabble. And some of my friends were beginning long druggy journeys. But on this evening we were innocent. The culprit was nothing more sinister than the fish and chip shop at Riversdale Beach. A small square building nestled down near the northern end of a long beach that is empty for all but two weeks of the year.

Dave, Jerry and I were in the midst of an Easter surf adventure. We’d started at White Rock, Dave weaving my mother’s Toyota along the tightly-wound gravel road, and over the almost washed away track at the end. We’d surfed thick glassy walls along the point at Seconds, and lonely reef break peaks at the end of the Spit. We’d marvelled at how early the sun set behind the mountains, and we’d gazed, spooked at a decomposed shark’s head that lay on the rocks. Then we moved to the tricky reefs of Dolphin Bay, and after that Riversdale, where there were beach breaks, a place to stay with our friend Barney, whose mother had rented a farm cottage with some other adults, and food that wasn’t two minute noodles.

We arrived in Riversdale in the late evening, which is when the fish and chip shop betrayed us. We ordered and then waited, waited and waited. All the while orders, which weren’t ours, started piling up, uncollected, on the counter. At some point one of us started giggling. Not stoned, just childish, provoked by the absurdity of having to wait 45 minutes in a fish and chip shop that was busy cooking food for non-existent people.

From there it was downhill. We spluttered our way through dinner at a picnic table. Then our merriment was fuelled by nerves as we drove to the farm house (we were arriving unannounced; how would Barney’s mother react?), before being set fully ablaze by the fact that if we arrived amidst clouds of laughter all the adults would think we were stoned. We knew that much. And so, try as we might, we couldn’t stop laughing. When we thought the giggles were done, they would erupt again.

We got through the front door, stifling ourselves, “Hi Mrs G., we were just um he..he..here to see Barne..he..he”. “Oh ha..ha..hey Barney.” “Would it be alrigh..h..ht..t if we stayed tonight.”

We looked at our shoes. We tried not to look at each other. We spluttered. We stank of self-consciousness. Our cheeks puffed from holding in guffaws. We were saved by the fact Barney’s mum was cool.

“Of course you can stay. There’s a great spare room.”

The moment Barney had us alone in that room he castigated us. “You! Can’t! Come! Here! Stoned!”

“We’re not, honest. It was just the fish and ch..hi..hi..hip sh..hh..op.”

And with that I collapsed again, accompanied by Dave and Jerry, into what must have been for the three of us, one of our last true bouts of giddy childhood laughter.

July 21, 2015

Port Moresby

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:23 pm

If you want to picture Port Moresby start with Western Melanesia. That is, diversity. Hundreds of languages. Different customs. Different legends. Distinct regions. And a weak state in which all these fragments are bound together by interpersonal ties and something akin to a softness of manner, where most people — though not always young men — try hard not to unnecessarily antagonise because conflict, once started, is hard to dowse.

Next, if like me your frame of reference is Honiara, where all of the above is also the case, add in some Suva. This means an obvious indigenous upper middle class, which populates shopping malls and has its own fashion magazines and mores, and style. Honiara is bereft of most of this.

Then, take a big leap, and blend in your imagined Sao Paulo. Mineral wealth has brought inequality to PNG big time, and even before it did Moresby was a dangerous city. There’s a motorway, and cranes, and grand hotels, and more shopping malls on their way. But there’s also giant tangles of slums. And there is razor wire, and compounds, and nervous expats driving SUVs with doors locked anxiously awaiting car-jacking.

That’s Port Moresby, or at least how it seemed to me on my first visit.

July 8, 2015

The gentle invasion

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:35 pm

Sometimes, after dusk, Kangaroos invade our suburb — infiltrating, filtering down from amidst the gums on the slopes of Mount Majura.

It’s a silent invasion: Kangaroos are built to blend in, with gumtrees and termite mounds originally, but their trick works just as well with letterboxes and lampposts. Even in flight, somehow they hop without sharp transitions, which means you can find yourself cycling along the poorly-lit streets of suburban Canberra, accompanied by a kangaroo, grey and ghost-like. You unaware, and it trying to distance itself from you, unable for the time being, hemmed in as it is, by the fences and houses of your neighbours.

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