The Ground Beneath Our Feet

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In this newsletter:
*** Living in the Wairarapa: A Day in the Life of a Wedding Harper
*** News and Current Projects
*** Cool Things Friends Do: Book Launch, "The Eels of Anzac Bridge"
*** The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Living in the Wairarapa: A Day in the Life of a Wedding Harper

I have been avoiding wedding gigs any way I could for the last few years. Recently, when I accepted a short notice engagement at a nearby venue, just because after all it was money (or so one hoped), and at least it would not be a major hassle, I have been reminded, yet again, precisely why that is.

I can hardly think of a more efficient way to kill any joy one might have in music, than playing one's heart out to a room of noisy, disinterested, and increasingly drunk people whose only reaction to the presence of life music is to talk louder. Except for those greasy uncles, present at any family occasion, who apparently think the harper might be easy bait for a bit of a rough and tumble in the hay afterwards. Of course, it's background music, and one expects nothing else. But still. Used to be I'd hush the entire auditorium of the Berlin Philharmonia to the point you could hear a needle drop, when I started playing.

Then, there is the perpetual issue of payment – or rather, non-payment. I can remember one – one single – gig I have had here in New Zealand, hired by New Zealanders (not people from overseas), where I used to get treated with common courtesy, where I was able to focus on my performance, rather than wasting my time and energy arguing with people who hadn't done their part of the job and didn't see why they should have, and where I was paid the agreed amount (however inappropriate to the time, effort and skill expended), on time, without debates or endless chasing after. *Every other time* there has been some kind of issue. Private people, small organizations, major institutions, no matter. They just don't think they have to pay the musician. Even when there is a contract black on white. Apparently a contract with a musician is not really a contract, according to the unwritten Laws of Kiwiland (not to be confused with the New Zealand Code of Law).

Knowing this, I now require payment in advance, on arrival at the venue, and so accordingly, when I arrived at this wedding, I got handed an ashamed envelope by an embarrassed gentleman (Money: oh so dirty – when one has to give it away). So far so good.

I should have counted it then and there. For when I got home, I found that these oh so embarrassed-by-money-transactions people had interpreted the fact that I accepted cash, to mean that I was going to cheat the tax office of the GST amount I had billed them. Naturally – who'd do anything else! They had therefore taken the initiative and paid me a bit less than what it stated in the contract – all of thirty dollars, just a little over half the GST amount included in the fee.

I sent an email to the young lady who had contacted me on behalf of the bride's mother, whose contact details I had not been given, and asked her to pass on the message about the cash shortage in the envelope, and my bank account details. I received the following text message on my cell phone in return (which I reproduce here in full, just so my readers can confirm that I am really reading what I am reading):

"Dear Astrid first Thanx o much 4 yr beautiful music at our daughters wed. Zoe has contact d us say n we owe u money we understood the deal was $450 cash. Unfortunately we have all left the area nd have no way of getting the money back 2 u we all feel bad could u sort it by putting down half hr less on tax return, my brother who works for I.R.D. made this suggestion. By the way passed on yr contact details 2 wed s aug nd sept who want 2 use yr services Thanx again N.N."

What really worries me about this is not even the fact that I've just received advice from an I.R.D. employee (and I assume he's not the janitor) on how to dodge my tax obligations. I mean, every government employs its share of corrupts and crooks, we all take that for granted. What really worries me about this, is that the I.R.D. employs people who have such a poor grasp of the basic maths of tax calculation.

I replied that if they had gone overseas – which I took their phrase "leaving the area" to imply, seeing as they were seemingly unable to either transfer the money into my bank account, or find a New Zealand Post Office and deposit it directly – that was not a problem at all, I would send them a bill through my Paypal account, which accepts credit card payments from virtually anywhere in the world, and I would be happy to convert the amount into a currency of their choice if that was more convenient. Could they just let me know their email address.

I didn't hear back for a good week, at which stage I emailed a first payment reminder to the email address I did have, informing them that if I did not receive their payment by the date stated, I would then also charge for the half hour overtime I had done at the wedding, as well as the usual statutory interest.

At past 8 pm on a Friday night – well out of what could reasonably be expected to be office hours – I received a phone call from the mother of the bride. I hadn't really expected her to get in touch, after the previous, but seeing as she did, I expected that she would apologize profusely and announce that she had just put the money through, and that the whole thing had after all been an innocent misunderstanding.

But no. She started the conversation by telling me how rude she thought it was of me to follow standard business procedures and remind her of her outstanding payment, as well as advising her of the penalties in case of late payment. At that point, I interrupted her educational efforts and told her in no uncertain terms what I thought of her – so at least if she wants to call me rude, she now has some manner of grounds on which. After I'd put down the receiver, she called me up a further three times – I was considering advising the police of a case of phone harrassment, but the last call went straight to my answering machine, where she gave me a 10 minute lecture on all my misdemeanours, which I felt it was best to delete without listening to.

Needless to say, I have as yet not received the outstanding payment. Neither have I heard from either of the two weddings in August and September who want to use my services – not that I would remotely consider making myself available for someone I had been recommended to by a client who has not seen fit to fulfil their own contract, even should they actually exist.

UPDATE: On Tuesday morning after sending out this newsletter, and sending another payment reminder to the postal address of the wedding couple which it had really not been a problem to obtain (local affair!) – I received a cheque in the mail for the outstanding amount. Included with it came some further insults and very-transparent-lies (an attempt to "save face"? As if there was any face to save after all of this!) – as well as the triumphant announcement that "through my bad PR I had lost both of the weddings I could have played at". Well, I doubt I could have fitted them in – busy times at Asni: Multimedia, what with the two new web design projects I just got booked for. And I better hope the cheque is covered. Sad Lady, indeed.

Farm shed, Wairarapa Farm shed, Wairarapa Farm shed, Wairarapa Farm shed, Wairarapa Farm shed, Wairarapa Farm shed, Wairarapa Farm shed, Wairarapa Farm shed, Wairarapa Farm shed, Wairarapa Farm shed, Wairarapa Farm shed, Wairarapa Farm shed, Wairarapa

Farm shed, Wairarapa



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Grimm's Fairy Tales cover design, Puffin Design Award 2012 Grimm's Fairy Tales cover design, Puffin Design Award 2012 Grimm's Fairy Tales cover design, Puffin Design Award 2012 Grimm's Fairy Tales cover design, Puffin Design Award 2012

New artwork: Grimm's Fairy Tales cover design :: Puffin Design Award 2012

News & Current Projects

A large part of this month was taken up with work on my two submissions for the Penguin/Puffin Design Award 2012. The contest is open to students of art and design courses in the UK, I heard about it through the London Art College course I am doing. Seeing that illustrating book covers – especially for a respectable publisher like Penguin or Puffin – comes pretty close to what I would ideally be wanting to do for my living, I thought it was an opportunity to good to pass up. Even though no one seems to be quite certain if London Art College students are actually really eligible – but here's to hoping that if that's the case, the jurors won't notice until after they've at least looked at the work. :D

The two books to create covers for were One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey for the Penguin Award, and Grimm's Fairy Tales for the Puffin Award. Perfect! Finally all this German background and upbringing is good for something.

For me, the Grimm Tales always have to do with the forest. The starting point for my design was a photo of quintessential German forest fringe I took in Bavaria last year. I turned it into a tonal ink sketch, then played around with it in Illustrator – I was seeing all sorts of shapes and faces in the shadows, but when I put the first draft online and begged for some feedback, it turned out that people really couldn't make out what it was supposed to be, and it didn't seem very suitable for a children's book publisher.

So I went back to the drawing board and came up with another version, bringing out the shapes I was seeing much more clearly, and also reworking the forest in a way which, I hope, makes it more recognizable – but sticking to the original idea of shapes and shades that lurk in the woods, which strikes me as very essence-of-Grimm, and which most people really liked. The sun went down and the moon went up in the process, but that also, I think, was a good choice.

I ended up with several versions of the cover design and had a hard time deciding which one to submit – there wasn't a clear preference for one version or the other, though a lot of people did like the goose, which I decided to leave out in the end.

You can read more about this project, and the design process, on my DeviantArt Journal, if you are so inclined – including all the drafts and reject versions!

I hadn't read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (I did see the movie, quite a long while ago), but I'm quite glad that this contest gave me an occasion to correct that omission. That book should be one of the bibles of the "Occupy" movement – if it isn't already! What a clear-sighted analysis of the workings of power. The real, subtle, fine-spun power of the "system" and those who support it (which includes those who decide to suffer under rather than oppose it), I mean, not the bulldozer power of particular individuals or even organizations. A story which gave me a clinch in the stomach more than once, with its all-too-recognizable characters and situations – but despite the grim topic, also a jolly well written, and surprisingly funny read. Well, it's on the list of modern classics not for no reason, so I hope a lot of you will have read it already, and I can save myself some raving-about. :)

The book is full of visual symbols to pick from. I went for the broken glass – the rebellious McMurphy repeatedly puts his fist through the glass screen which separates the patient's common room from the nurse's station, and we've all heard about the "glass ceiling", so that seemed like a pretty potent symbol for a lot of what the book is all about. Besides, it gave me a chance to prove I'd done my research into Penguin's illustrious history of ground breaking cover design, and play around with the old three stripe design that used to be the standard, before the publisher adopted illustrated covers.

The leaping salmon appears repeatedly in Chief Bromden's musings and recollections, and we meet him on the fishing trip which is the cumulation of McMurphy's efforts to break Nurse Ratched's power and let himself and the other patients have some fun.

And of course, it's all about the mind/brain, and what is being done to it. Ken Kesey wrote this book based on his own experiences and observations, when he signed up in the 1950's to be a lab rat for tests on psychedelic drugs (most of which would later be illegal), in order to earn some student cash. So the bright psychedelic colours were chosen quite deliberately too. I even went to the trouble of modeling a brain cell in 3D – there's a nice shape resonance with the broken glass pattern I was after – though admittedly, the result looks rather more like something I imagine one might encounter on a bad trip. Then again, that is quite appropriate, too.

Read more about this design here.

Apart from working on those cover designs, I have also been forging ahead with my assignments for the London Art College course. The perspective assignment I had almost completed by the last newsletter is indeed first in line, though it wound up taking me a few days longer. I don't think it's the most inspired artwork I ever did, but hopefully, it will fulfil the requirements. Actually, the colour version has started to grow on me the more I look at it – though I still have the feeling that the colour scheme is somehow just a little bit off.

The next assignment was all about morphing – a concept I am already familiar with from my Multimedia diploma, so this was a much quicker job than the dreaded perspective assignment. Having spent most of the month in Grimm Tales mode, I decided to stick with it for just a little longer, and even recycled some of the shapes from my cover. The Prince --> Frog, on the other hand, seems to resonate with a surprising number of (I suppose, mainly female) fellow artists on DeviantArt... I wouldn't know why that would be. :whistles innocently:

Earlier in the month, before I lost myself in the Grimm Brother's fairy tale forest, I've begun to get the garden into winter (and ultimately, spring) shape. I've done some cleaning up, put in a few more garden beds, and started on those wind screens the young spring leaves will need badly when the spring storms set in.

Most importantly, I've made a start with that orchard I have in mind: there are a brand new cherry and a brand new pear tree. I've also put a prune tree on order, but I decided to get fancy and try if I can source a German variety. They're what I have grown up calling a "plum", and I am emotionally attached to German prunes. We used to have a tree on a property my parents used to own in Bavaria, where they never built that holiday home, but we used to get the plums, and I can well remember my mother's homemade Pflaumenmus orgies. My first introduction to homemade preserves -- and I want some! :)

At the moment, the trees don't look like much, just a couple of sticks with leaves – but oh, this year I really can't wait for spring! I took some photos this afternoon, but forgot to change the settings back from "way after sunset", so they are very grainy and not very sharp – still, I could pretend I did it on purpose, and call them art! I do want to send this newsletter out tonight, so taking a new set tomorrow won't work, apologies for that. And yes, I should have given the lens a good wipe, too. :S

orchard in the making, and some late blossoms orchard in the making, and some late blossoms orchard in the making, and some late blossoms orchard in the making, and some late blossoms orchard in the making, and some late blossoms orchard in the making, and some late blossoms orchard in the making, and some late blossoms orchard in the making, and some late blossoms orchard in the making, and some late blossoms orchard in the making, and some late blossoms

New cherry, old lime, new pear, old lemon, recent blueberries, new windscreen, and some late blossoms



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Cool Things Friends Do: Book launch, The Eels of Anzac Bridge

Viv Walker and Ali Foster are an illustrator/writer team from nearby Carterton. They have just published their second picture book collaboration, "The Eels of Anzac Bridge", published jointly by The Wairarapa Archive and Fraser Books.

I met Viv and Ali at one of the children's book illustration weekend crash courses they are holding regularly in Carterton. Ali had us look at a good selection of picture books from the local library, and it was quite fascinating to see how many of these books, addressed at the youngest part of the population, deal with some of the heavier topics: illness, loss, death, grief, fear, feeling isolated and outcast, that sort of thing. The better ones among them make a lot of the literature which is addressed at adults seem pretty shallow and fake!

Ali Foster definitely has that storytelling gift to tell a very simple story and make it resonate. The Eels of Anzac Bridge is inspired by a local story, a young man who went to fight in World War I, leaving behind his pregnant wife, and never came back to see his daughter. His journey is paralleled with that of the New Zealand eels, who at the end of their life travel all the way to Tonga to spawn, and never return.

Anzac, btw, for those of you who are not from this nook of the world, stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Anzac Day, 25 April, is a national holiday in both countries, to honour the Anzac soldiers who lost their life in the battle at Gallipoli in WW I, and more generally, all the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who went to fight in either of the World Wars. The "Anzac Bridge" alluded to in the title is a bridge in Kaiparoro, just up the road from here, which records the names of the local soldiers who were killed in the two world wars.

I've grown up in the epicentre of those wars, and I have felt their lasting damage in a thousand ways, in my own life and that of my family. Sometimes it fills me with dismay that try as you may, you can never run far enough to get away from them. There'll be a war memorial poking out of the remotest New Zealand bush, reminding you. I suppose that's why they call them "World Wars".

But maybe running away is not the point. What I like about the way Ali tells this story, is how gently she deals with this huge topic. She doesn't point fingers, she does not even mention an "enemy". Neither does she glorify the soldier. The young man goes to war because he feels it is the right thing to do, bad things happen, that is that. At the end of the day, it is all part of the great cycle of life. I found the book very moving. I was thinking about my grandfather, who also never really came to know his daughter.

Captive audiences at the book launch Captive audiences at the book launch Captive audiences at the book launch Captive audiences at the book launch

Captive audience at the book launch at Pukaha Mt Bruce

The best written picture book would fall flat without the, well, pictures. Viv Walker takes us from the remote farmland safety of the Wairarapa, to the underwater mysteries of the breeding eels, to the horrors of the European battlefields, and back – quite a tour de force for an illustrator!

Viv's eels, writhing in the underwater mud or swirling down the river towards their spawning grounds, are almost mythical creatures, putting me in mind of Robin Hobb's Sea Serpents (the ones that eventually grow into Dragons). Reading about the journey of the eels, one might well imagine that this journey has indeed spawned sea serpents in an author's imagination!

The devastation of the WW I trenches is summed up in one grim page spread. But most of all, Viv really has the feel, the colours, atmosphere and light of the Wairarapa landscape, and its people, down pat. You can almost smell the grass and feel the stiff breeze, or hear the cars honk at the opening celebration for the eponymous bridge.

The book is available to order online – the first print run has already sold out (yay for Ali and Viv!) - but I am told that a second print run will be available in a couple of weeks.

I got my own copy at the book launch event at Pukaha Mt Bruce last month, properly signed by both author and illustrator. Purchase of the book came with a free ticket for the Kiwi House and nature walks, so I took the opportunity to have a look around and find some eels of my own!

New Zealand eel at Pukaha Mt Bruce New Zealand eel at Pukaha Mt Bruce Chasing the stitchbird at Pukaha Mt Bruce Chasing the stitchbird at Pukaha Mt Bruce Chasing the stitchbird at Pukaha Mt Bruce Tuatara at Pukaha Mt Bruce Tuatara at Pukaha Mt Bruce Vegetation at Pukaha Mt Bruce Vegetation at Pukaha Mt Bruce Vegetation at Pukaha Mt Bruce Vegetation at Pukaha Mt Bruce New Zealand eel at Pukaha Mt Bruce Vegetation at Pukaha Mt Bruce Vegetation at Pukaha Mt Bruce Vegetation at Pukaha Mt Bruce Vegetation at Pukaha Mt Bruce

Birds, beasts, fish, and vegetation, at Pukaha Mt Bruce



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Wairarapa evening mood Wairarapa evening mood Wairarapa evening mood

Wairarapa evening mood

The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has whetted my appetite for more American literature. But before delving into some of the 20th century classics (on the list are To Kill a Mockingbird, another sad omission on my reading list, and a re-read of On the Road), I picked up a more recent book, which had impressed me when I first read it (a little while ago, I was still living in Germany then) – and which I've been wanting to read again ever since I wrote up the article about Bob Dylan and Joan Baez which I've posted in a previous newsletter.

Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet is his book about music. More particularly, a modern reworking of the Orpheus myth, cum parallel-universe history of rock music. And a few other things besides. What's not to love!

The main focus of the novel is the epic love story of Vina Apsara and Ormus Cama – two fictional rock musicians, born in the city of Bombay, who, after a sojourn in London during the 1960's, make it big in New York, as the major rock stars of their parallel reality. Or rather, the story is about the love triangle between Ormus, Vina, and Rai Merchant – a childhood friend and career photographer, who is also the narrator of the story.

Both main characters are a conglomerate of the biographies, character traits, iconic moments, and let's not forget song lyrics, of several, let's call them "this-universe" rock stars. Wikipedia states that the character of Ormus Cama "seems to be heavily inspired by John Lennon and Elvis Presley" – indeed yes, and there is also a solid dash of Freddie Mercury in there, the Parsi from Bombay. But – just to prove, yet again, that Wikipedia is not really as reliable as a lot of people want to believe – whoever wrote that apparently completely failed to spot the other main dude.

Ormus' main gift is as a composer and lyricist, though he's also a capable singer, even if his voice, more of a growl, can never match Vina's – but amazingly, together they make perfect harmony. Their first break comes when he and Vina crash a stage at an open air festival. Ormus arrives in London in 1965. He has a bad car accident in 1967, which puts him out of action for several years, though the exact circumstances of the accident are carefully hushed up. He is reunited with Vina and eventually, they tour again – and what was that description of their stage setup, "she in front and below, he behind and above"? Remember that poster? – In later years, Ormus becomes reclusive, and his aversion to press interviews is well known. Sounds like Bobby who?

The choice of female rock musicians to model Vina on is a little narrower – as far as I can make out, she is about equal parts Tina Turner and Joan Baez (I guess Janis Joplin never got round to writing her autobiography, though she seems to have contributed an outfit), except when she, too, takes on traits of Bobby for a while. Vina is, first and foremost, "the voice". Her vocal powers are nearly magical, people love her simply for the sound of it. Her voice is firmly associated with bringing Ormus' songs to life – although she later begins to write her own material, and tries to launch a solo career away from Ormus.

Born in the American South to an Indian father and a Greek mother, her childhood has echoes of Nutbush, Tennessee, but whoever has read Joan Baez's autobiography will probably recognize the school troubles of the half-Indian girl who is neither "black" nor really "white". She always wears a moonstone ring Ormus has given her. She has a habit of letting the wider public participate in her most private affairs – and by extension, Ormus's private affairs. She is committed to her life-long love for Ormus, but does not let that keep her from sleeping with as many other men as she pleases. Many women find her openness liberating, and she becomes a trailblazer for other women to follow in her tracks. She is politically active: first in the Civil Rights movement, and no one contests her right to sing on behalf of 'black people", despite not being one of them. They simply love her too much. As she becomes more famous, she develops a habit of personally charming major political leaders into action: they meet her thinking they can pat her on the head (or pinch her in the bum) and disregard her requests, but they find themselves opposite a fiercely intelligent and strong willed woman, and before they know it, they've made major concessions.

Both Vina and Ormus die before the end of the novel: Vina is swallowed by an earthquake in Mexico in 1989 – one of the many earthquakes that year, one of which happens to swallow the entire Iron Curtain. Ormus, who never gets over her loss, is shot, John Lennon style, outside his apartment block in New York. But, this is a parallel reality. As the last line of the novel points out: "In reality, they just go on singing."

Amazingly enough, despite being a convoluted intellectual construct full of references to pop culture, classical myth, (recent)-historical figures and events, and post-colonial deconstructionist theory (or whateveryacallit) – it is also a truly engaging love story. Or anti love story. Or anti love story that pretends to be a love story. Or a story that takes love ad absurdum and reaffirms it at the same time, but in a different shape than what 19th century romantic novel conventions would have us want to believe. "Go from my window, leave at your own chosen speed. You're not the one I want, you're not the one I need. And it ain't me, babe, no no no, it ain't me... but mama, you've been on my mind" -- you get the drift.

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Ground configurations, Wairarapa

Apart from having fun chasing up the musical, historical and biographical references, what got through to me far more potently this time, than the first time I read the book, is the wisdom behind it – the wisdom of experience of a writer who has been threatened with state-sanctioned assassination because of something he has written. A writer who has, partly by necessity and partly by choice, lived outside his own native and ancestral country for the best part of his professional career, adopted another culture as his own, and become a major figure in this adopted culture.

He knows what it is like to not be able to be certain of the ground one stands on, of living in perpetual danger of getting the rug pulled out from under one's feet – and of the importance of finding one's own place to put down one's own roots, when the old ones have been brutally chopped off. In Maori culture, there is the concept of turangawaewae – literally, a place for the feet to stand on – which sums it up quite well.

Unlike Maori people (at least the ones who provided the definitions on the website I have linked to), or others who adopt the same cultural values, I believe that this place should not have to be determined by one's line of ancestry. For some of us, it might simply be a suburban section where one can plant some fruit trees. Nor is a healthy creative imagination limited to the things one happened to suck up with one's mother's milk in the first few years of life. It would be a pretty poor artist who limited herself this way. Perhaps it explains something, though, about a cultural environment where this is made a requirement!

Let's just say that after the things which happened in my own birth country during the last century, when people began to attach far too much importance to lines of ancestry, the concept does not strike me as a healthy or commendable one. Not to mention that it has greatly contributed to my own condition of rootlessness. Though I suppose the irony of accusing a person of fascism for no other reason than the accident of their birthplace, thereby only proving their own essentially fascist outlook, is entirely lost on certain people (a lot of them self-defined "liberals" or "lefties") I have met over the last nine and a half – no, make that close on 20 years.

One might call Salman Rushdie an elder spokesman of the migrant tribe. Someone who can coin words like "immigratitude" and "immigrovelling", certainly has my vote! Being myself rather lacking in either (at least according to the tastes of some), it is nice – and sometimes very necessary – to be reminded that attitudes which are "sired on incompetence by envy" should not be what one lets determine one's life, much less one's creative choices.

Arohanui, from Asni



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Evening mood outside Featherston Evening mood outside Featherston Evening mood outside Featherston Evening mood outside Featherston Evening mood outside Featherston Evening mood outside Featherston

Evening mood outside Featherston