The Book of Qualms

No sooner had I finished the final page of Mary Norris’s impeccably punctuated prose, I determined to begin Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, again. Norris, a copy editor at The New Yorker, is I decided, a psalmist and Between You and Me, her hymn to the glory of grammar. My mind was a whirl with syntax and semi-colons, captivated by the contrariness of the comma, and agog at the antics of the apostrophe in lackadaisical hands. In short, I was worried. Apparently, transgressing grammatical law has become, even among the well-educated, alarmingly common. Take for instance the solecism—a slip up in syntax—or think of it as a sin of commission. Despairingly the use of ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ is rife, with shoe salesmen to Academy Award winners caught in the act. And if Barack Obama—who Norris rates as the bright star of political articulateness in recent times—is also a regular transgressor, what hope is there for us ordinary folk. Not for nothing did Norris title her book, Between You and Me. Then there are failures to perform an action, these are sins of omission. And here the comma deserves special mention, not least because Norris’s employer, The New Yorker, in a monogamous relationship with punctuation for ninety-three years, is well known for its lashings of commas. That the magazines fondness for punctuation has endured, is due in large part to its enigmatic founder and editor, Harold Ross. As his successor, William Shawn explains, in Here at The New Yorker, Brendan Gill’s 1975 memoir, “Ross was devoted to clarity and stood in awe of grammar.” Under his auspices, punctuation was sacred and not to be trifled with, the net result of which, Gill says, often left staff writers’ feeling “restive under the literary mutilations ritually practiced upon us by Ross in the sacred name of accuracy.” It seems that writer disgruntlement prevailed crossing continents and editors’. From 1990 to 1995, under the editorships of Bob Gottlieb and Tina Brown, British journalist and novelist, Julian Barnes wrote a regular ‘Letter from London’. The preface to his 1995 book, Letters from London, leaves you in no doubt that writing for The New Yorker, is at once enviable and exasperating. His description of the editorial process in getting an article to print is akin to finding oneself in an authorial way station—a purgatorial domain—where one’s work undergoes grammatical and factual purification so that it may attain the accuracy necessary to enter hallowed pages of The New Yorker. Oh, Julian you poor dear. Well for what it’s worth, I think you’re perfect.

Undoubtedly the editorial assiduousness that Gill and Barnes recall survives, it is a habit and The New Yorker has donned its Sunday best—the vestments of grammatical decorum—for more than ninety years. Now, in the twenty-first century, replete with grammar-free textese, tweets and e-mails, we need the ceremony more than ever. And after spending time with Norris, it struck me that not only was she leading the ceremony, but reinvigorating it too. Whereas before, the copy editor loomed like a spectre over a writer’s sentences, Norris—the copy-editing equivalent of Vatican II—has flung open the editorial office door and invited, not only writer’s, but all worshippers in.  I’m one of those enthusiastic worshippers at The New Yorker, figuring over the years, that careful, if somewhat irregular, study of the catechism might smarten up my prose.  While tardy in reading Norris’s book, I’ve watched religiously, Norris’s Comma Queen videos that premiered on October 3, 2015.

I picked up a copy of The New Yorker that was lying on the coffee table. The date was February 23 & March 2, 2015, the ninetieth anniversary issue. I turned to the contents, of which the first, is a piece by Mary Norris: Holy Writ Learning to love the house style. A taster for Between You & Me prior to its publication in April. The copy editor was facing the congregation, now seen and heard, a spirited part of The New Yorker.

 Holy Writ Mary Norris



Lore & the New Order: NZ Vote 2017 – in my book

In New-Zealand’s system of government the people are represented by a single chamber of Parliament elected using the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system.  Vote 2017 was held on September 23rd and definitive results known on October 7th. Neither the centre-right National Party, in minority government since 2008, nor the Labour/Green left-block, alone had enough seats to form a majority government without the support of the New Zealand First party. Negotiations to form the next government have been underway since then.  I am among the 50% of New Zealander’s who voted for change, and tonight this has been realised, with the announcement of a new Labour-led coalition government.  This is my story.

Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 2a

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 e

Chapter 4

Chapter 4 edited

With You in View

It was late afternoon when I noticed you outside a newsagent in Siem Reap. Your crisp cream jacket conspicuous amid a predominance of dull and rumpled others.  You exuded a cool elegance as if hoping to revive a day grown weary by its own heat and humidity.  I stood for several minutes, idly scanning the reading material one rack over, before making my way towards you.  As I drew closer it struck me just how familiar you seemed, and for a moment I thought you might be that old friend I hadn’t seen in a while; your features alike in many ways. But you weren’t of course.  And once together, seated in a quiet corner, I saw you were much younger.  Nevertheless, you were full of charm, vibrancy and the provocativeness of youth as you unfolded stories, offered opinions and poeticised about the Mekong region you love.

I’m home now but I have not forgotten you.  Did you know I kept your jacket—the one you were wearing when we met—it hangs where I can see it and every so often I take it from its hanger, open it and smile, as your stories tumble out.  In truth, I keep expecting to catch sight of you sporting a new jacket and brimming with fresh stories. Last weekend I looked out for you in Scorpio Books, but you weren’t there. So, for now, when I want to know what you’ve been thinking and writing about, I must content myself with ethereal you. Call me fussy, call me old fashioned but I much prefer you in the flesh.

Mekong Review

Mother Who


What could be better than chocolates, even better than flowers or perhaps breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day?


When, part way through Mother’s Day brunch, your sixteen-year-old son enthusiastically suggests that you could be the next Dr Who!

P1040511 - Copy

Nothing to Declare

As I, along with the rest of my travel-weary family and the multitudes of other similarly afflicted passengers inched our way towards a Customs Officer at Auckland International airport, my thoughts necessarily drifted to another long-ago passenger, Oscar Wilde, who on arrival at the New York Custom House, is said to have uttered, “I have nothing to declare except my genius”.  Likely, amid this throng of humanity, were ‘remain’ and non-Trump voters, who, on arrival at the customs desk, might reasonably echo this 19th century sound bite.  Whereas, I had nothing to declare but my waywardness.  Evidence of which—one hardback and one paperback—lay concealed in my suitcase.

In truth, it wasn’t that I’d fallen off the wagon, but rather, stepped off it briefly to save a couple of books in imminent danger.  Let me explain.  We were holidaying in Cambodia and naturally, added to the ‘to see and do’ list was, ‘find bookshop(s)’.  Finding them was not difficult. In fact, I discovered two fine Phnom Penh bookshops—D’s Books and Bohr’s Books—near our hotel.

What did prove difficult was comprehending the reality of what I’d found.  Book-selling in Cambodia is not for the faint-hearted.  Thanks to unrelenting humidity—even in January relative humidity seldom drops below 41% and can reach as high as 99%—Cambodian booksellers must contend with, what Andrew Lang once described as, “the first great foe” of books, damp. And, despite seemingly excellent air circulation in addition to overhead fans and air conditioners, its destructive presence—foxing in particular—was all too evident.  So, if you’re in Cambodia spare a thought for these tenacious book-folk and please do buy some books.

Books & me: Quantitatively Speaking

How I see my books has always been a view through rose-coloured glasses.  The imaginative lens that overlooks the rising tide of books and frequently underestimates the depth relative to my reading strength. That conceives of beginning a secret bookshop—think Brazenhead Books with better amenities—Front Room Books, a deliciously acceptable front for further acquisitions.  So, buoyant and bespectacled, I remind Ali, “You can never have too many books”.


Looking back it was inevitable really.  Loss of buoyancy and glasses, a direct consequence of lugging twenty-two boxes of books single-handedly from the basement.  And it was, as I reached for a towel to halt the twenty-two rivulets of sweat coursing down my face that I began to wonder if I might indeed be sinking in this sea of books.

Which brings me to what I’ve been doing lately.  Counting and cataloguing the sea of books; reminiscing with those into which I’ve dipped and dived, while shamefacedly confessing to others that I’m still dithering at their pages edge.


I have unwittingly, it would seem held an audit of my reading.  And so, faced with the evidence that unbridled book acquisition does in fact interfere with actual reading, I have resolved that 2017 will be a year of determined reading and book-buying abstinence.


I’ll let you know how I get on.

Trumpery – in my book

“That trumpery hope which lets us dupe ourselves” OED

Chapter 1

chapter-1Chapter 2

chapter-2Chapter 3


“Even the soul most heroically endowed with firmness cannot maintain a consciousness of inward worth when such a consciousness can find no external basis of support”

Simone Weil 1909-1943