Family Brand

At a book launch at New Zealand House in London, an official solemnly concluded his speech with a quote from "the great writer, el Doctorow". Next to me a British poet registered the mistake with a raised eyebrow. I thought of el diablo, el Dorado: the devil, the City of Gold. Beyond the windows the great city was sunk in a brown haze, lights blurred in the gloom, raindrops snaked down the windows. Inside it was hot and crowded and the light was harsh. I was in a mood to pay close attention: el diablo was in the detail, and the conversations all were gold. We were talking about family. A woman told me a story: when she was a student she stayed in a small town in Italy and fell in love with a young man. She grew close to his family, and thought seriously about staying. But her father, who had a mysterious job in the UK government, had the young man vetted, and discovered his family was the centre of a powerful mafia clan.


On Michael Laws

Feral Territory

There was no sun, there was nothing new under the sun, but few sights are as unchangeably beautiful as the colours of Doubtless Bay: gradations of white, grey, blue, green as the sea shades into the Far North sky. Above the vast stretch of moving water the gannets scan the surface, plummeting with a white flare. At Whatuwhiwhi we were a party of seven: two adults, three children, son's girlfriend, daughter's boyfriend. Gales whipped the bay into a mess of foam and flying water, then the wind died and the sea turned calm under the low grey sky. My brother-in-law, Dave Grimshaw, the TV helicopter paramedic, now home here and working in Kaitaia, turned up one evening and described, with relish and in comic detail, the challenge of a Far North ambulance callout: locations remote and obscure, communications liable to fail. In the dark, in the middle of nowhere, armed with map and torch, Dave drives his ambulance into the unknown. 'The people are lovely,' he said, 'if you can find them. And if you show them you care.'


On Christopher Hitchens

Facing the New Reality 

All over the Christian world they are praying for Christopher Hitchens. Reality has struck him, in the form of a diagnosis. He has cancer, the outlook is grim. He denies that God exists so they pray for his soul, on their knees, hands clasped. They hope for a conversion, the unctuous fantasists. It's so hard to see anything good in them.

He does not embrace Christianity. Nor does he lie around at home. He takes a private plane. They're on their knees and he's flying, crossing America on a tour, debating the existence of God. Hitchens in his plane, looking down on the earth, on plains and prairies and American towns. Recent footage shows him talking about his illness. In his eyes there is pain, humour, sadness and courage. He was wrong on Iraq. On God, he is nothing short of heroic.

Facing the age-old realities: death, birth. I read Smoking in Antarctica, Steve Braunias's new book of collected columns. He quotes a CK Stead poem on the birth of a child: 'I do not want myself back.' I am struck with a memory: Steve picking up his week old daughter Minka, holding her on his knee. A new father, confronting the new reality, embracing it. He was wry, amused, willing, a natural.


Me and Boris Johnson


Memory and Desire and Mayors

In The Telegraph in September, London Mayor Boris Johnson revealed he'd attended the same school as Ed Miliband and his brother, David. Following this up, journalists discovered other ex-pupils of the same school: writer Zoe Heller, film director Sam Mendes. Nostalgic Johnson described a 'pre-paranoid' education: the freedom, the bikes, the tooth-rotting lollies, the way the school buildings were wedged so close together you could shinny up between them until you were twenty feet off the ground. He mentioned abominable food doled out by dinner ladies, playground fights, kids roaming free in an era when parents didn't think there was a 'paedophile behind every bush.'


The Emperor Augustus

Ancient Morals and Superpower          
On the Palatine Hill in Rome the cypresses are dark slits in the blue sky and the dust rises from the paths and the stone walls radiate heat and the city of Rome is spread out below, from the Circus Maximus to the Vatican. The lines of history stretch far, far back and there's nothing new under the sun.
When Rome was the superpower that controlled the Western Mediterranean and the Middle East, when Julius Caesar was consolidating his dominance by challenging the Senate and the constitution, pushing through controversial legislation and defying the Senators, when Caesar installed Cleopatra on the Egyptian throne and began his great affair with her, there were still fifty years to go before the birth of Christ.


God goes after Richard Dawkins

The Word Made Flesh

At the Writers and Readers week in Wellington there were two schools of thought on Richard Dawkins. My taxi driver said, 'I don't like him. The way he goes on. It's like he's founded a new religion.' I made non-committal noises. I was firmly in the other camp: the happy-clappy one. The one that raises its hands and says, 'Thank God for Richard Dawkins.'


On Greg King

I met Greg King when he was the guest speaker at a Wintec lunch, a grand occasion held in a room overlooking the beautiful, broad, slow Waikato River. King spoke at length and without notes. He had a way of pausing and peering at the audience, no doubt gauging, with minute and professional sensitivity, the effect of his words. He was a mass of contrasts; he managed to look melancholy and at the same time amused; he was jovial, funny, wry, serious.
His use of language was eerily familiar to me. Once, long ago, I lived with a criminal lawyer whose verbalising was strikingly like Greg King's: quaint, Dickensian, articulate and persuasive yet studded with grammatical inaccuracies and malapropisms. I remember a postcard from my lawyer that announced, "I am here in Venice, amidst the pageantry." My favourite Greg King line was his similarly dramatic cri de coeur on behalf of Ewan McDonald, "Why? Why, in the realms of Christendon (sic) would my client do that?"