Oh, Mother

It was two buses across town every Sunday afternoon, delivering the daughter, her husband, and their two young boys to her parent’s house in St Albans. Her father, a clerk of works, had inspected their house in Hoon Hay, deemed it worth buying. Disaster, financial, ensued when the foundations sank in the soft soil. A young couple, two kids and more on the way, and a sunken house.

Not like the house in St Albans. Two hours every week visiting that house (neat as a pin, and the garden, everything in its place). Not a place for two young boys, two hours a week. Two buses home, the daughter chastised no doubt, made to feel her faults, the son-in-law his shortcomings, and the boys – their boisterousness frowned.

Before her first child, another country, an older city, she sang in the choir at St Mary’s on the High Street. I’d go there some lunchtimes, years later, and light a candle or two, burning thoughts of life and death. It was high enough for candles. She sang Bach’s Mass in B Minor in the Bach Choir, unnerved by the other singers’ choral training and sight-reading.

It was in Christchurch they joined the Church. You know, the Church. Incense, candles, even a pope. In part it was the fashion – Baxter had gone that way. But in part it was some sort of statement about those trips across town every Sunday, the cold Methodism of both their parents.


I never met Dad’s father, Granddad. He was the second man in Feilding to sign up for the first world war. The first – his best mate – died at Gallipoli. He survived that, and the rest of the war, through perhaps luck and poor health. The latter saw him convalescing in Cornwall where he met my nana and proposed. Beguiled by the uniform she accepted: a middle class lass from Truro, daughter of a shopkeeper no less, marrying a farm labourer from Fraddon near Indian Queens.


Dad is the youngest of three: a sister five years his senior, and a brother (late) two or three years older. Nana sent them all to school with homemade pasties, sometimes meat but usually fruit, apple. Baked fresh. They were the envy of the school. There’d be a sandwich and cake too, all wrapped in paper then (and it made my dad cringe) bundled up in a checked cloth. She knew how things should be.


At the end of the war, Granddad joined the march into Cologne to start the rebuilding process, one of the few to see the start and end of the Great War.

Running man

My dad grew up in a place called Makino. Nowadays it’s part of Feilding, on the north side of town with Makino Road and the Main Trunk Line running through the middle. Back then it was three houses, and everyone knew each other.

There were gum trees and poplars and arum lilies growing in the paddocks. Dad thought all these plants were native, or not so much native as just part of the landscape. There was no native and no exotic. The houses huddled around the Pakeha Brand Butter dairy factory. A few houses and a dairy factory; that was about it.

Dad was a member of the local cubs. I find that kind of surprising given his left-wing upbringing but the left politics and childhood militarism aren’t totally exclusive. (His father was active in local Labour politics and was one of the first to sign up in Feilding for the first world war.)

The cubs were in town. The movies were in town. Everything was in town. He remembers cold winter nights coming home from town, picking out lampposts to run between. He’d cover three lampposts at a run, then walk a lamppost, then run another three. That’s how he covered the two miles home from cubs or a movie in town.

Last time he can remember running was a decade ago when he still had an office and a desk and a stationary cupboard on Lambton Quay. In his seventies, he tried to run for a bus, but his legs forgot to keep up with his body. He stayed on his feet but missed the bus.


I’m getting obsessed with running at the moment, as anyone close to me knows. Something I know is that for people not doing it, running’s a dull subject. Conversations with my dad remind me again and again of his deep interest in the lives of people around him and his ability to personalise his response to them. It’s a quality I hope I’ve inherited.

Do experts need a defence?

I’ve been meaning to write a post about crowdsourcing and experts for a while, so long in fact that I now feel inadequate to the task. Suffice then, to note a few things down.

Crowdsourcing is a fairly recently coined term and has opened up huge debates about the power and value in letting the crowd create new digital reference points. It’s also fundamentally challenged the role of experts in mediating information and knowledge. In short, it’s the Wikipedia model v. the Encyclopædia Brittanica model (though it’s maybe ironic that the Wikipedia entry for crowdsourcing is flagged as needing improvement, pointing to both the strength and weakness of the concept).

The term came up in a conversation I had recently with my Dad. He worked for years as an academic and editor – in short, an expert – and like me wants to know if the two approaches to knowledge, information, publishing, etc., can co-exist. Derek Powazek, speaking at Webstock ’09, said yes they can: the crowd can provide things while the experts can judge them. Similar in thought might be Jason Epstein’s optimism that, while Big Publishing may be failing thanks to the internet, good editors will never die. Further, it may be the nature of the internet – its sprawling uncontrolled and rapid growth – that’s making a decent editor more necessary than ever.

National Radio ran a Windows on the World piece about a month ago about transient lunar phenomenon (TLPs) and whether their existence (if they exist) is caused by gas escaping from underground cavities on the moon’s surface. Ergo, is the moon as dead as we think? It’s more complicated than I could summarise but one of the points made against the existence of TLPs is that much of the evidence comes from amateur photographers who tend to focus on common lunar features. This gives rise to observational bias and provides plenty of possible evidence at a handful of well-photographsed sites but none across the entire rest of the moon’s surface. That’s not to say amateur astro-photographers don’t have their place (check out what the National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory is doing to harness their work, blogged about by Best-of-3 here), but perhaps the democratic nature of the crowd has a tendency toward a homogenised majority view.

One last example – again I haven’t got a reference for it and the details are hazy – is a study that compared the collection of a major US public library with that of a large US university library. The former, developed over time by generalist librarians, had a scope that was vast and comprehensive. The latter, determined by the interests of specialised and disparate academics, was patchy in scope but incredibly detailed in its depth, far more so than the public library’s collection.

If generalist librarians represent the crowd and academics are our experts then they’re creating very different views of the world. Academics look at the things that the rest of us don’t. To the cynics, yes, some of those things will be a waste of effort, but some of them might change the way the rest of us view something with effects far beyond the original question. We, the crowd, might even learn something.

Where to put it all?

Evening spent with Dad talking about books he grew up with – the ones that got him into history, like the set of Harmsworth History of the World they had in the house. His dad read all eight (or was it ten?) volumes. He remembered visiting with his dad the local Left Book Club, in Feilding of all places, probably in the nineteen-forties. They bought a book each.

I’d given him a copy of Jason Epstein’s speech to the Tools of Change conference. Contrast the world Epstein talks of (book making machines on every sub-Saharan street corner) with the one in which Dad wrote his thesis: there were a handful of really really important documents he had to get copied. But no photocopying in that world, instead – at great expense – he could get a few photostats of the most valuable. That was less than sixty years ago.

Where to put these memories? The ones that fit somewhere between the ephemeral of blog and the solidity of print. Ephemeral will be fine for now but somehow we have to remember all this.