20 November 2019

Conversations with former strangers (India)

These posts will be thrown together quickly — I don't want to spend my time in India agonising over them. However, I hope they'll give you some idea of what it's like here and will reassure you that I'm still alive and well 🙂

Friday 15 November 2019

The flight from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur was awful — bad food and cramped seating — but at least I had an aisle seat and could move around enough to stay alive. Fortunately, the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Delhi had far roomier seats ( one of the more significant differences between a Boeing 737-800 and an Airbus 330-200), but the food was just as dire. I shouldn't complain, though — one of the most important things to leave behind when travelling, other than one’s dignity, is fussiness about eating (not to be confused with enlightened awareness of the way food might have been prepared).

At Delhi I was, inevitably, accosted by a taxi tout. Where was I going? Pahar Ganj? Oh, the Airport Express Metro doesn’t go to Pahar Ganj. 
'Taxi 400 rupees — cheaper than Airport Express,' he said.
I knew that wasn’t true and pointed out that the Airport Express would take me to New Delhi Railway Station for one hundred rupees (I discovered later it was just sixty: phenomenal value), but he kept insisting the Airport Express wouldn’t take me to Pahar Ganj.
‘But Pahar Ganj is directly opposite New Delhi Railway Station,’ I said. ‘Are you telling me the Airpot Express doesn’t go to New Delhi Railway Station?’
He knew the game was up and could only smile. 
‘You like India?’ he said.
Yes, I like India, even though people like him would try it on.

Saturday 16 November 2019

The tasks were going well. I’d signed up for a VPN and it appeared to have minimal effect on connection speed. After leaving a message for my bank to let them know transactions from India or Sweden (the VPN’s base) were legitimate, I walked down Main Bazaar to the ATM I’d used on my previous trip. It was still there, still working, still apparently straightforward. I inserted my card, asked for a large sum of cash, and tried to relax while it thought about the request, while I hoped I wouldn’t be freaked out by something disastrous like a ‘card declined’ message. The lights blinked to indicate I should remove my card. I heard the sound of rollers counting out cash, and I knew I’d be OK.

I carried on, intending to loop around and back to the Smyle Inn, and as I passed a side alley, a small boy in a startlingly white uniform and a backpack stopped and looked up at me, his eyes clear and bright in his copper-brown face. The previous evening I'd been walking along an alley when he'd called out to me. I'd answered in Hindi, and that had been enough to start a conversation. He'd thought I knew Hindi, and I had to explain I knew almost none. I asked him if he went to school, and when he said yes, I asked what his favourite subject was.
He thought for a moment then looked up at me from his bike and said, 'Science'.
'Science? Great! I teach people how to explain their science better,' I said.
This was a little too much for him to understand, though, because he asked if I was a science teacher. I tried my best to explain what I did, but I think my communication skills were lacking. We'd had an enjoyable discussion, though.

This morning he looked slightly uncertain whether I'd remember him. He looked hopeful, too. 
‘Hi Satim,’ I said, and he grinned up at me. ‘Are you on your way to school?’
‘Yes, school today.’
‘What time does school start?’
He looked startled and cast about for a reply, finally managing to say, ‘Seven and a half.’
He nodded, and I hoped it didn’t sound like I was correcting him. I hoped he’d now know to say ‘seven-thirty’, and I realised that if I’d been thinking faster I should have said ‘half-past seven’, but one lesson at a time was enough.

A man, tiny, no taller than Satim, came over and stood next to him. I wondered if he was Satim’s father, come to see what was going on, suspicious of the tall foreigner talking to his son. He said nothing, perhaps lacking English, and Satim didn’t introduce him. The man’s silence and questioning look took the edge off an otherwise enjoyable meeting, but eventually Satim said, ‘He is my friend.’ At the time I thought he was referring to me rather than explaining to the man that I was a new friend, but in hindsight that wouldn’t have made sense if the man didn’t understand English. I liked the idea that Satim might introduce me as a friend, but maybe that was just wishful thinking. 
‘I’m Pete,’ I said to the man, hoping that identifying myself might set his mind at rest.
‘Peety,’ Satim repeated for the man’s benefit. At least it wasn’t the usual Indian pronunciation of my name: ‘Peach’.
Satim said something in Hindi, something brief and barely discernible, to the man, who nodded and left. He looked reassured, or at least mollified, and I hoped my impression wasn’t also just wishful thinking. I looked at my watch. If Satim was right, school started in ten minutes.
‘Have a good day at school,’ I said, and he smiled. He seemed a little over-awed. I was no one important or significant, just one of innumerable foreigners passing through Pahar Ganj, but perhaps I was significant to him for a short time because I’d taken the time to listen to him and show an interest. It was just a few minutes, but how much contact had he had with people from other places, other cultures? I felt sure I'd contributed something to his learning, even if it was just how to say 'seven-thirty'. After all,a brief, fleeting conversation with someone in another language can teach a person more than hours of language lessons. 

I learned that lesson later in the morning when I was walking down Basant Road. A rickshaw wallah pedalled up beside me, and, emboldened by the way my attempt at Hindi the previous evening had led to the conversation with Satim, I said ‘Arp kaysa hair?’ — how are you?
His face creased into a big smile, his eyes disappearing into his leather-brown face.
‘Teek uh,’ he responded and added something I guessed was ‘You’re fine too?’
‘May teek uh,’ I said. I’m fine. He understood my rudimentary Hindi, but when he said something else, I had to confess in English that I knew little more Hindi than what I’d just used. I held my thumb and index finger up, close together, to indicate something infinitesimal.
‘Hindi good,’ he said, flattering me outrageously. I thought — at least I hoped — he’d appreciated my attempt to use his language, and he was happy to continue the conversation in his limited English, which was far better than my almost non-existent Hindi. Of course, if that had led to a fare for pedalling me to Connaught Place, so much the better, but, as I’ve felt so often in India, that would have been an additional outcome, not necessarily the main benefit of the interaction. In hindsight, I should have hired him, but I was enjoying the mild exercise.

Sometimes language might be almost insignificant for the communication, but even then, understanding a few words can add to the appreciation. Last night I ate at the open-fronted Capital Hotel dhaba opposite New Delhi railway station; I’d eaten there regularly on my last visit and liked it. Dal fry urad, half rice, and a plain naan cost me just 75 rupees — $1.64 NZ. I recognised the dangerous-looking cook with his puku like a bulging sack of rice, and I also recognised the man who made the naan and prepared the rice at the back of the restaurant. He delivered the naan promptly and carefully, and, later, as he walked past, he looked at my handwriting in the cahier.
‘Mast!’ he said. ‘Mast! Mast!’
He pointed at the writing and grinned with obvious delight. I could have guessed what it meant, but it added to my own enjoyment to know immediately that it was the equivalent of saying in New Zealand, ‘Choice’ or ‘Sweet’ or ‘Wicked’ or ‘Awesome’.

After my conversation with the rickshaw wallah, I carried on to Connaught Place, past a man who’d just finished pissing against a wall and was now wiping his hands on a thin stray dog, which didn’t appear to mind. I dodged an amorphous shit on the footpath and managed to cross the road into Connaught Place, where I tried to remember the location of the Coffee Day I used to visit. I failed, but with unsolicited assistance from a persistent but eventually helpful man, I found another Coffee Day and spent an enjoyable hour there, writing. The franchise is appallingly expensive — about the same as New Zealand prices — but it’s an indulgence I was prepared to afford. 

Partway through the session, a businessman walked in, saw my writing, and came over to peer closely at it. We started talking about writing; I held up the Lamy.
'Not many people use fountain pens now,' I said. He nodded.
‘When I was a boy at school, this was the only pen we were allowed to use,’ he said. ‘Your writing, … this pen, … it makes your writing better. Not so messy.’
‘No ballpoints allowed.’
‘No ballpoints.’ He wobbled his head, the all-purpose gesture of acknowledgement that can mean yes, no, or more often ‘I disagree or don't know but don't want to say so’. He gestured at an empty chair and I invited him to sit down. We talked for a while. He was from Chamoli District in Uttarakhand. I told him how much I liked Uttarakhand and rattled off some places I liked to visit: Almora, Kausani, Josimath, Rudraprayag. He repeated the names after me, nodding and smiling, and he added more, asking if I’d been to those places. Karanprayag, Badrinath, Rishikesh. Yes, I said, all of them, feeling an unwarranted affinity with him.
He wanted to visit New Zealand. He’d heard about how beautiful and clean it was — I heard this every time I said I was from New Zealand and had so far resisted the urge to point out how many of our rivers were now considered unsafe for swimming — and he’d also heard it was inexpensive. At that point I felt obliged to caution him, urging him to plan carefully and listen to the advice from his friend in New Zealand. He went a bit quiet, mostly restricting himself to nodding, but I think he appreciated my comments. Perhaps if he was used to Coffee Day prices, New Zealand prices wouldn’t surprise him excessively.

Finally, he stood up and held out a hand gleaming with rings. I shook it, he smiled and thanked me, and left. I didn’t see him order or leave with anything and hoped for the cafĂ©’s sake he hadn’t been distracted by my presence. For me, though, an expensive coffee had been worth every cent.

1. Tailor on the street in Main Bazaar, Pahar Ganj, New Delhi.
2. It's not India without chai.
3. Musical instrument sellers, Main Bazaar, Pahar Ganj.
Photos and original text © 2019 Pete McGregor

12 February 2019

The weirdness of memories

At Leon Kinvig hut in the Pohangina headwaters in November 2018. The pen is a Lamy Al-Star with a Fine nib, the ink Noodler's 
El Lawrence, the notebook a Moleskine extra-large cahier. This combination works better for me than any other — so far.

It was the middle of the week and early in the morning, yet I almost walked away from Jacko’s cafĂ© because even at a quarter to nine more than half the tables in the main area had been occupied and I expected the remainder to be taken soon. But I didn't want coffee or hot chocolate; I wanted tea, passable tea, tea made with leaves, not tea bags, which are inventions of the devil, and I knew at Jacko's I could get tea made with leaves, and the secondary seating area still had enough free tables, so I ordered jasmine green tea and picked a table near the window.

The tea arrived a minute later, meaning it would have been steeped in boiling water and therefore ruined, but I’d given up being a tea snob and no longer asked them to use water well below boiling point. I used to visit regularly, and they’d quickly and happily learned to let the water cool, but that was the problem with Jacko’s — the cafĂ© was too good and therefore too popular, so I seldom had a chance of getting at least a full hour to write without feeling guilty about monopolising a table that could have been taken by more lucrative customers. I’ve never felt comfortable adopting the cafĂ©-as-office attitude. Consequently, I stopped going to Jacko’s when I couldn’t find a time I could be confident of an hour’s relaxed writing, and by the time I started visiting again the staff had changed and I didn’t want to start over with the request to let the water cool.
Rainbow over the back hill, the last sunlight of the evening just leaving. Mown
areas beginning to recover.

That’s one reason I chose jasmine green tea — because its strong flavour meant no one except a native green tea drinker would notice the difference, would notice any subtleties missing from the green tea, and, to be honest, nor could I.  Like my liking for instant coffee made with milk — if I wanted to sound less like a bogan, I could call it cafĂ© con leche and say it was the norm in much of South America when I'd travelled there — my taste for jasmine green tea brewed badly could be rationalised by considering it a different kind of drink, more akin to a herbal infusion, the way South American cafĂ© con leche was fine if you didn't expect coffee. Mostly, though, I’d given up asking for the tea to be brewed at a better temperature because I didn’t want to be an arse.

I sat at my table and sipped my jasmine green tea and jotted down three ideas I’d thought of as I’d driven to town. First, shortly after I'd driven through Ashhurst, I’d caught a momentary whiff of freshly mown hay, the scent no doubt accentuated by the heavy drizzle saturating everything including the faded-yellow stubble — all that remained of the once-lush paddocks — and the first idea I jotted down was the way that that mown-hay smell reminded me of two things. The first was one of the few facts I’d retained from my second-year plant physiology course; namely, that the smell of cut grass came from a class of plant secondary compounds called coumarins. Why on earth had I remembered that when I’d forgotten so much far more important information? (In the same class I’d also learned how confectionery manufacturers got the soft centres in chocolates, but why had I remembered that trivial fact, which had also only the most tenuous link to plant physiology?)

The second reminder was of the smells of midsummer, which of course meant Christmas and therefore reminded me of the smell of freshly cut pine branches (the poor person’s Christmas tree; we, being poor, spent significant effort sorting through the heap of branches to select the one that looked least like a hacked-off branch and most like a murdered baby tree). The memory of that pine smell, mingled with the hay scent, was so strong that I could easily have believed I was actually smelling it, that I’d just driven past a roadside stall selling Xmas trees (I hadn’t, but the sense was that strong). I’d read somewhere that humans can’t remember smells the way we remember sounds or things we’ve seen, but that struck me as nonsense. The recollection of particular smells, like ripe apples in a pantry or sun-crisped wrack among tide pools, was as vivid for me as any piece of of music or sight of a landscape. I'm not talking about what a smell evokes — that's something else entirely, and although smell seems better than the other senses at evoking strong memories, I'm talking about remembering the actual smell, almost as if I were smelling it anew.

Mad summer blackbird delousing on a Christchurch, lawn; last days of 2018.

The pine smell memory in turn reminded me not just of Christmas but also of a fountain pen ink I’d recently tried: the Sailor Tokiwa-Matsu, a beautiful, muted green tinged with blue but protean in the way it adapted to different papers and varying light. I wouldn’t be abandoning my favourite ink (Noodler’s El Lawrence) any time soon, but the Tokiwa-Matsu could easily have seduced me if I could have justified the expense and if it had at least some degree of water resistance (it had none at all). The thought of losing months of handwritten journal entries because of some accident like a bad spill of improperly brewed jasmine green tea or a spaniel wilfully pissing on an unguarded notebook (anything is fair game for a spaniel), ... well, that's one of the main reasons I use the El Lawrence.

What struck me so strongly about these memories was how they linked in ways that were so unpredictable that the links could be understood only after they’d happened. A smell reminded me of another smell, a midsummer smell, which reminded me of two apparently unrelated things: Christmas and ink. On another occasion I might have ended up remembering something totally different: not Christmas and ink but India, for example, or nearly drowning, or the wilfulness of spaniels. Someone  else noticing that cut-grass smell might have — would have, surely — been reminded of something utterly different, like nearly losing a finger to a lawnmower, and that might have triggered other memories, like the disinfectant smell of a hospital ward, the excruciating sting of a local anaesthetic, the weird, unsettling tug of stitches being tightened. I suspect the strangeness of memories mostly consists in the way they can be triggered by almost anything.

The second of the three ideas I wanted to jot down was about the T-shirt a friend had been wearing — a plain black T-shirt that read, ‘There are two types of people: those who can extrapolate from incomplete data’. I don’t know what had prompted the memory of that T-shirt, and I also couldn’t remember why I wanted to remember it, and that led me to wonder why we’re so bad at remembering. Maybe if we remembered everything, or even most things, our heads would be so full of unimportant memories that we wouldn't be able to retrieve what was what important? This reminded of something another friend had once said. We’d been chatting over a beer at the Celtic after our team had once again failed to win the quiz night, and he’d said, ‘It’s not my fault! I have an encyclopaedic memory — it’s just that I’ve lost the index.’

The third thing I wanted to remember? Well, I’d been driving and didn’t want to pull over to write it down, ... and I’d forgotten it. If the book of my mind had stored that topic, the index had no entry.


The small gorge in the Pohangina headwaters between Leon Kinvig hut and Ngamoko hut; midsummer, January 2019. Home to one
of the biggest eels I've seen — judging from its size, it's likely to be older than me. Long may it live there.

Photos and original text © 2019 Pete McGregor

24 December 2018

Bending like a reed

At the City library the low afternoon sun was flashing from a sign that hung, swaying in a cool wind, over the footpath. The angle of the reflected light was such that it hit me — and, as far as I could work out, only me — at exactly the right angle to blind me, as if I was being questioned by a military interrogator who was convinced I was a spy or terrorist, or who just liked being a sadistic arsehole. I had to turn my head and close my eyes and lean to one side and trust that in a few minutes the sunlight would have slid off the swaying sign and I’d be able focus my attention entirely on Thom, whose talk, entitled Bend Like a Reed, was the reason I was sitting there with a dozen other people, listening.

I recognised three: the elderly woman who perfectly fitted the adjective I didn’t want to use because it sounded patronising (namely, ‘sprightly’); the young guy from Bruce McKenzie’s bookshop; and the dishevelled Poet, who slumped in the chair in front of me, spilling out of the ragged green jersey that looked as if it had shrunk in the wash but was still too big for him. The right sleeve had an enormous hole that must have driven him mad every time he pulled the jersey on and ended up poking his hand through the wrong hole in his sleeve. Mind you, I found it impossible to imagine the Poet being driven mad by anything, because I’d never seen him animated; if anyone wanted to explain ‘phlegmatic’, The Poet was the perfect example.

The sun did eventually move off the sign and stopped blinding me, and I could begin to concentrate on Thom’s silhouette and what he was saying. He mentioned his late colleague, Scott, whom I’d met several times and who was a good friend of a good friend of mine, and he referred to a point Scott had made about writing and the importance of ‘the abyss of mystery’, and gradually I began to understand what he was saying — or I thought I did. If I did, what Thom was saying reassured me, because I thought the same thing, and to hear Thom affirm it gave me some hope that maybe my own approach to writing — which seemed in so many ways to conflict with the conventional advice about writing — might not be as wrong as I thought.

If I understood correctly, what Thom was saying was that it’s important not to know — at least, not too clearly — what you’re writing. Perhaps what he was getting at was that good writing is an act of creation, which, almost by definition, must be spontaneous in the sense of happening at the moment of being written. If you know what you’re going to write, the writing is no longer an act of creation — it’s already been created.

The following evening (the evening I wrote the draft of this, in other words), I made my way to Barista, bought a coffee and sat down to write. I had no idea what I’d write about, so I began anyway, and soon after I’d jotted down some notes about being blinded in the library at the start of Thom’s talk, the sun slipped through the cafe windows and, reflecting from the varnished tabletop, dazzled me. I shaded my eyes, bent like a reed over the abyss of mystery, and carried on writing.

1. About Thom Conroy

Photos (you can connect them with the text if you think hard enough): 
1. Willow in wind and drizzle, Pohangina Valley
2. Waipawa River headwaters, Ruahine Range

Photos and original text © 2018 Pete McGregor

22 November 2018

Bird skull stories (2)

So you’d like to hear another story about birds and skulls, and maybe bird skulls, would you? I could tell you hundreds of stories about birds — shall we start there? Yes?

Years ago I was walking alone down the headwaters of the Pohangina River in the Ruahine Range, a place of small tough mountains and wildness; a place of snowgrass fields on mountaintops, and whole mountainsides of leatherwood, which is the toughest plant you'll ever not want to try getting through; a place that can delight you with its warmth and sunshine and lovely old kaikawaka trees all gnarly and moss-hung, and small steep creeks that promise all sorts of surprises and hidden special places, and its special birds like karearea the falcon, and titipounamu the rifleman (the tiniest bird in Aotearoa), and ruru the morepork whose call at night is one of the most beautiful and melancholy of all owl calls, and most of all, whio, the blue duck, who you won’t find anywhere in the world in the wild except in those high, rushing, New Zealand mountain rivers. Only a few thousand of those wonderful birds survive in all the world, so what sheer joy it is to see them, especially when you’re alone in those places and you sit down to watch and they begin to settle and relax and think, oh, he’s OK, he’s no threat, and they climb out of the river onto a rock and preen their feathers and stretch their wings one at a time, and then they slip into the water again and swim right past you, so close you have to put the binoculars down and pull yourself together again.

But that's a different story. Let’s get back to ours, shall we?

There I was, walking alone down the Pohangina in the early morning when the sun, still low, was making the toetoe on the slips glow gold, so the reflection on the dark pools and shallow rapids looked like molten brass. I had all day to walk down the river to the next hut, and because it was summer and the river was low, the water felt only cool, not cold, and I was enjoying wading across and back again, so I took my time walking and looking around.

At a big pool in the shade with rapids downstream and a small cliff on the opposite side, I stopped to watch the colours on the water. I took off my pack and got the camera out. In the branches of a beech tree leaning out over the cliff and overhanging the pool, a little miromiro began calling and flitting about. I photographed the reflections then packed the camera away, and then, as I began to re-tie one of my bootlaces, the miromiro came flying across the pool, straight toward me. I stood up, and it landed in the shallow water — at my feet.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The little bird splashed and fluttered in the water right next to my boots, and I wondered whether it was in trouble and whether I should pick it up out of the water.

What would you have done?

Maybe wait and see, you say? That’s a good answer. I wish I could say that’s what I decided, but to tell the truth, I only did that because I was so surprised I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there, astonished, while it splashed at my feet.

Then it flew up out of the water with a flicker of sparkling drops and flew back to the tree on the far side of the pool.

Maybe it was having its morning wash? But why did it come right up to me, though? The water was shallow for several metres either side of me, so it could have had its bath further away, not right at my feet.

Do you think it liked me? I hope so.

Maybe one summer you, too, will walk alone down a river like that in the early morning, and a little miromiro will come down to splash at your feet. I hope that happens, but if it doesn't, maybe something else strange and inexplicable and wonderful will happen to you instead, and when it does, I hope the joy will flow through you the way it flowed through me, that day a long time ago, alone in a clear, bright, summer river in the early morning in one of the Earth's wild places.

1. This is Part 2 of the Bird Skull Stories
2. I know this one's not about skulls — not explicitly, anyway.
3. The facts in this story are true. This happened to me.

1 & 2. Miromiro on the No. 1 Line track (the first is a male; the second is a female). I didn't photograph the miromiro in this story.
3. The Pohangina River near Leon Kinvig hut, November 2018. Tthe pool in this story is about an hour further downriver.

Photos and original text © 2018 Pete McGregor

24 December 2017

Bird skull stories

Magpie skull
‘Tell me a story’, you say, so I think of the first thing that comes to mind and wonder how I can turn it into a story. First, though, you must tell me whether you want a true story or something made up, with fabulous characters that might not even exist, that not even a David Attenborough documentary could show you — creatures even more astonishing than the mantis shrimp or Vampyroteuthis infernalis, the vampire squid from hell — creatures that might live in Moominvalley with strange names from Tove Jansson’s imagination (although some real creatures have wonderful enough names, like the shortarse feelerfish, zombie worms, and bristlemouth fish, which are more numerous than any other animal with a backbone).

To return to your request for a story, though, let me start by telling you what happened as I carried the rubbish down the long driveway in the warm, wild nor’ west wind one morning not long ago. This actually happened; we can decide later whether to diverge from what happened to what might have happened. But now I see you’re impatient to hear the story, just like I was when I was your age. All right, then.

So, I’d carried the rubbish bag out to the gate, and as I took it the last twenty-five metres to drop it next to the neighbour’s bag, I noticed something old and dead lying in the weeds next to the letterboxes. Magpie, I thought, and on the way back I stopped to look more closely.

The remains of the bird had decayed to nothing more than pale bones and feathers, the quills still stuck in desiccated skin. The form of the body had gone; everything looked a little mixed-up except for a dry wing that had retained most of its shape. But, sitting on the almost-mummified remains, was the magpie’s skull.

Wind and rain and sun and time and insects had cleaned the skull almost perfectly, stripped it of nearly every trace of dried flesh and skin. The lower part of the beak had gone, but the upper part remained, still partly covered with its tough sheath, although even that had dried hard and begun to flake off. I looked at the skull with its beautiful sad lines and curves and the huge hollows where its eyes had once looked out on the world, and I wondered many things. How had it died; what had killed it; how did it come to end its short life? (Magpies don’t live long compared to us.) How had it ended up in those roadside weeds? Most probably, it had been a young bird struck by a car and someone or something had carried it or just tossed it off the road. I hoped it hadn’t been injured and had flapped and dragged itself there to die, but the way of things isn’t always as kind as we wish. Let’s not think about that too much, though, because I see that might upset you. (Good — I’m glad you find the pain of animals difficult.)

I picked up the skull. As I said, it was clean and old, so I wasn’t worried about getting my fingers covered in bacteria and objectionable smells and other pestilence. The skull was so light I could hardly feel it. I guess you could say it felt as light as a feather. (Later, I weighed it and found it weighed just two-and-a-half grams: about as much as a teaspoon of tea leaves. Now you know how much a bird’s skull weighs when the bird that lived there has gone. Isn’t that something?)

I didn’t know why I picked up the skull and took it back to the house and set it down on a sheet of white paper. Maybe I didn’t want to leave it there to get trodden on or blown into the oozing ditch or smashed to bits by a weedeater when someone decided to tidy around the letterboxes. Maybe I wanted to keep something beautiful. Maybe you have some ideas?

Ah, so you think maybe it was just a cool thing? You might be right, and you’ve taught me something, too: I thought kids stopped saying ‘cool’ years ago when saying ‘cool’ became uncool. So kids still use it? Thank you.

Whatever the reason, I did pick it up and take it back with me, and here’s where we need to decide what to do with the story. Shall we stick with the truth, or shall we make something up?

‘Both’, you say? There’s a thought, and I have to hand it to you — you’ve trapped me cleverly into telling you two stories, not just one. But maybe you’re right to do that, because everything has more than one story. Sometimes I think anything has as many stories as you can imagine, and as many true stories, too, if only you had a way of discovering them.

1. Possibly part 1 of a series
1 & 2. Magpie skull, Pohangina Valley, December 2017

Photos and original text © 2017 Pete McGregor

13 September 2017

New life from old things

  A fierce wind was whipping the shrubs around, but only an occasional half-hearted gust swirled into the shelter of Greg's small, glassed-in porch. Each time, the nylon cape he’d fastened around my neck to keep the hair clippings off my clothes floated up, and I had to hold it down. The inconvenience was minor, but the glare from the sun on the white weatherboards dazzled me, forcing me to squint, and my eyes began to hurt. Greg had put on his dark wrap-arounds. He stood in front of me, scissors in hand, not cutting my hair, while he explained how he’d fix the cables on my mountain bike.
   ‘When it’s in a low gear, y’can slip the cover out of its …’
   He paused, not knowing the name for the little nubbin that held the cable sheath in place.
   ‘Then y’can slide the cover along and get some sandpaper and sandpaper the crud ‘n’ shit off it’, he said.  He looked determined that no crud or shit would survive his sandpapering.
   ‘I’ve got some special stuff y’can squirt down it to lubricate it. Y’can’t use oil, ‘cos that makes the inside go all gummy’.
   I thought of the many types of lubricant I’d squirted into the cables over the years and kept quiet, guessing sandpapering and special stuff wouldn’t be enough and the whole set-up would need replacing. I didn’t mind paying for new cables, but Greg liked restoring things, particularly bikes, and buying new parts was a last resort.

   When I’d arrived, he’d been tightening the nuts on the front wheel of a little BMX bike. The spanner slipped off the nut he was tightening and fell on the ground, and he’d left it there while he shook my hand, and then we’d gone out to my car to retrieve my bike.
   ‘Ah, that’s what I like to see’, he’d said when I’d lifted the hatch. ‘A bike that’s seen some use’.
   It had certainly seen that, and even though I’d known Greg wouldn’t worry about seeing a filthy, rust-scaled, beaten-up bike, I felt mildly embarrassed about its ruinous state.
   He asked me what I wanted fixed. I hadn’t thought much about it, other than wanting new brake pads and some work on the chain and gears. I just wanted it safe and running smoothly and had assumed he’d figure out what needed to be done.


   We propped the bike against the wall of the house and got on with the haircut. He’d snip away briefly then stop to yarn about something, then snip some more. I always allowed over an hour for a haircut with Greg and made sure I didn’t have to be anywhere important anytime soon afterwards, just in case the cut took longer than usual. It usually did. The haircut was mostly incidental, though; time yarning with Greg was the real reason I went to him. That, and his aptitude for restoring old things.

   His campervan sat on the small rectangle of front lawn, taking up most of it, and his ancient caravan sat in front of the van, taking up the rest. He told me how they’d been to Raglan recently in the campervan and had got there and back with a hundred additional kilometres of exploring, all for just a hundred dollars’ worth of petrol. He pronounced Raglan as ‘Ragland’. I didn’t know if the pronunciation was deliberate or a Greg joke — ‘Rag-land’ — but I didn’t want to embarrass him if it wasn’t, so I took care to avoid saying ‘Raglan’. If his pronunciation was unintentional, though, he’d have laughed and turned it into a joke anyway.
   He stood with the sun shining on his bald head, with his greying stubble and dark glasses, with an impish half-smile, not cutting my hair, and he told me how he’d been slowly working on the campervan, lining it with plywood and smearing sealant around the windows to stop the leaks. He’d fitted the sink with a gold tap, too, he said, and he pointed at it through the grimy window. It was a standard chrome tap, and I laughed with him.

   ‘Y’know, I’d rather live in that than this house, Pete’, he said then, and he was serious. ‘It was pissing down and I was thinking, yeah, I don’t know about driving all the way back from Ragland in the rain. Not too safe, y’know. So we parked up at a campground. Plugged it in and, y’know, I LOVE the sound of rain on the campervan. Even better than listening to it on the roof of a house’.
   He was remembering the night they’d spent snug and dry with the rain coming down somewhere near Ragland.
   ‘You’re all cosy, and, it’s like you’re in your cocoon’, he said.

   The sun was glaring on the white house and the shrubs were thrashing in the wind, and Greg was somewhere else, behind his dark sunglasses with the rain pelting down on his little campervan in the Ragland night.
   Then he came back and resumed snipping at my hair, gradually tidying up another old thing.

Photo: The bike, in much better nick after Greg had worked on it.

Photos and original text © 2017 Pete McGregor

26 August 2017

Eating weetbix at the speed of light

You’re not sure how it happens, but one day you’re assembling your breakfast — bran flakes, a couple of spoonsful of rolled oats, raisins — and you reach into the giant packet of Weetbix you’re sure you bought just a week or two ago, all seventy-two biscuits, which you’ve been crumbling into your bran flakes and rolled oats and raisins at the rate of just one a day just two or three times a week, and you realise that suddenly, unexpectedly, you’re several layers down in the packet, approaching the halfway mark, and the maths just doesn’t add up.

The only explanation is that you must have bought the packet months ago, not weeks ago, but surely time can’t be passing that quickly? Maybe your breakfasts — your breakfast times, that is — have been too enjoyable. Einstein once explained relativity in relatively simple terms by pointing out that when you’re with a beautiful woman, time flies past, but when you’re sitting on a red-hot cinder, the moment goes on forever [1]. It’s an analogy most of us can relate to, at least in part and adapted to personal preference and experience.

But, had I really been having that much fun during the course of my Weetbix-depleting dawns? If time had speeded up as I sat at the kitchen table, reading what had happened overnight in the world, or — if I’d risen late enough — looking out the window at the violet dawn  and the blackbirds tugging their breakfasts in long, elastic, resisting threads from the soggy pasture, then who had been eating the missing Weetbix? Had another parallel version of me been crumbling Weetbix while I looked out the window and thought of birds and beautiful women?

If I wanted my life and my Weetbix to last longer, would I have to find a red-hot cinder to sit on?

Another thought crossed my mind. If I could eat breakfast faster than the speed of light, time would start to move backwards and, presumably, my Weetbix box would begin to fill up. With sufficient practice, I could eat at the speed of light, in which case time would stand still and I could survive on just one Weetbix until, … well, the end of Time.

None of it made any sense, which is such a common feeling for anyone trying to understand pretty much anything about modern physics that it was a completely unsurprising feeling. Besides, I’ve always been the slowest eater I’ve ever met, and the only way I was ever going to eat at the speed of light was if I existed in a parallel universe. That might have made perfect sense to Richard Feynman, whose theories were instrumental in developing the idea of parallel universes and was probably the only person who could explain them intelligibly [2], but two things meant I was unlikely to be able to get my head around the concept that I might meet myself somewhere, sometime parallel to where I happened to be. First, Feynman was a genius and I’m not. Second, and sadly, Feynman died many years ago [3], so I’d never get the chance to sit down and talk with him and hear him explain incomprehensible concepts comprehensibly — unless, of course, I met him in a parallel universe in which he hadn’t died.

Modern physics isn’t something most of us can pick up easily. For a start, you need to know the maths, and that’s a long and arduous apprenticeship. The effort might be worthwhile, though —advanced maths is, by all accounts, an end in itself, a reward in itself. Bertrand Russell described mathematics as having a ‘supreme beauty’, ‘sublimely pure’ — but he, too, was a genius. A different kind of genius, admittedly, but he shared Feynman’s genius at mathematics, so he was well placed to pass that kind of judgement. I’m not, so I have to rely on belief that he was right, and belief, as any competent scientist will tell you, is dangerous and not to be trusted.

But, if you don’t have the mathematical training and flair, you have to rely on translations from mathematics to everyday language, and only a handful of writers have those twin skills of advanced mathematical competence and great facility with written language. Thank the cosmos that we have at least a few of those — Brian Greene is a great example, as is Stephen Hawking (although some will disagree with that assessment [4]) — but when you’ve finished reading their works and you still have questions, it’s not like you can figure it out for yourself. The analogies those interpreters have to use do a good job of explaining what they’re trying to translate, but here’s the problem: ordinary mortals like you and me can’t confidently extrapolate the analogies. In other words, we can’t know whether our extrapolations are valid. You’d have to ask the translator, and because few of us will ever get the chance to query Greene or Hawking, we’ll never know whether they’d nod and agree or shake their head and say, ‘No, the analogy doesn’t work for that.’

So, for the time being, I’m forced to keep wondering why my Weetbix are disappearing faster than apparently explained by the Laws of Physics, and I guess I’ll just have to enjoy them while they last — while, that is, I have time.

1. I’ve taken liberties with the phrasing of what Einstein said, but because the quotation appears to have been indirect, I’m comfortable with my liberties.
2. OK, I’m taking serious liberties with the history of the Many-Worlds Interpretation, mainly because I don’t understand it, but the main point is that if anyone could comment sensibly on it, that person was probably Feynman.
4. Until Thomas Piketty published ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ was considered the least-read best-selling book.

I had no idea about what photographs to include (there's a challenge for better photographers than me: make weetbix look interesting), but then I thought, well, birds don't wonder about these things. They just get on with it, and if there's maths to be done, they just do it without a fuss.
1. On the other hand, maybe tui are solving complex abstract mathematical problems when they're singing. Their songs are so astonishingly complex that anything might be possible. And yes, that's its tongue.
2. Sparrow getting on with its day.
3. At Massey University, the waxeyes and other birds have been feasting on the spring nectar.

Photos and original text © 2017 Pete McGregor