After writing on Women of Influence


Our team have been writing stories for Stuff’s Women of Influence series lately.

It’s cool finding out about the powerful women in our proverbial backyard. If there’s one female legend I wish I could’ve met, it’s Janet Frame.

Actually, if I could interview ANY Kiwi from the past, it’d be her. To engage first-hand with the mind that produced such marvellous stories…

One of the most memorable experiences I had while studying in Dunedin was a visit to the old Seacliff Asylum grounds. In response to a column I wrote about passing through the settlement just north of Dunedin, some readers invited me back, this time for a tour.

So I borrowed a car and drove to meet the locals at the edge of The Enchanted Forest.

Were it not for my generous guides, Janet Frame’s tree would have eluded me, as would have the stone cross at the bottom of the garden, and the kidney-shaped pool tucked deep within the Enchanted Forest.

Yes, the Enchanted Forest. What was to be expected of such a place? Perhaps roots of relish sweet, honey wild, manna dew, of an elfin grot. One friend, upon hearing this, offered advice: “If they offer you Turkish Delight, decline! That’s how they got Edmund.”

The garden is indeed enchanted, but – as one local professed – in a “good way”. The reserve is only a backdrop, however, for the vibrant village of Seacliff itself. The houses are tightly knit and so, it seems, are the people. Perhaps it’s this proximity which inspires such collective passionate pride, and fosters such a sense of community.

Gosh I haven’t read that for a while. It’s very verbose, I apologise, please forgive me, I was an English student.

But I met wonderful people at Seacliff, some I still keep in touch with. It was an extra-special trip for me, of course, because Frame lived there, during the 1940s.

Wandering among the trees, we found hers. From that spot I faced the view – beyond the precipice to the sea and sky – the same view she would’ve seen, when she raised her head from writing.

I was glad to find her high on the list of New Zealand’s History Makers.

And, I’m lucky to have been raised by my own woman of influence, my mother, who so valued literature and introduced me to the likes of Frame and others.

It was a good idea for a story: To find female descendants of influential women throughout New Zealand’s history.

What’s happened to the daughters, granddaughters, even great-granddaughters, of our female Kiwi legends?

It’s difficult to say. Out of the top 10 women history makers in New Zealand only three were mothers: Kate Sheppard had one child, Dame Whina Cooper had six, and Kiri Te Kanawa had two.

New Zealand isn’t unique in this regard – all around the world, high-flying women are unencumbered by children.

American political scientist Condoleezza Rice, American talk show host Oprah Winfrey, former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, English actress Helen Mirren, to name but a few.

Despite their achievements, these women face stigma for being – to quote a phrase previously directed at Gillard – “deliberately barren”.

Society treats childless women at worst as selfish, and, at best, as anomalies.

But procreating is no longer a safe way to social acceptance, either. Working women are criticised for neglecting their children, while stay-at-home mothers are told to get a job.

As Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote after she stepped down from her job as the first woman director of policy planning at the US State Department; “Women still can’t have it all”.

My number one woman of influence is, of course, my mother.
My number one woman of influence is, of course, my mother.

“This story came last night. Everything is always a story, but the loveliest ones are those that get written and are not torn up and are taken to a friend as payment for listening, for putting a wise keyhole to the ear of my mind.” – Janet Frame, “The Lagoon” – from the book that saved its author’s brain.

Public holiday drama, dread

While public holidays are generally considered a welcome respite from the usual working week, or at least an opportunity for extra pay, some of us dread them.

Yes, dread them.

Largely for the uncertainty.

Which shops will open? What time do bars close? Is public transport disrupted? Will my lunch come with a side of surcharge?

According to the Department of Labour, employees are “entitled to a paid day off on a public holiday if it would otherwise be a working day … separate from and additional to annual holidays.”

Employees who are made to work on these days “should be specially rewarded”. Generally, this is via time and a half pay, which is legally the minimum paid to an employee on a public holiday.

Different entitlements apply to each type of holiday. In New Zealand we have, 1) Christmas and New Year holidays, and, 2) “all other holidays”.

The first category includes Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day and the day after. Weirdly, it also includes Waitangi Day (6 February, today) and Anzac Day (25 April), because they have fixed dates.

As of this year, such holidays evoke “Mondayisation”. This means that if the holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday that would not otherwise be a working day, it is transferred to the following Monday or Tuesday. On the other hand, if the holidays falls on Saturday and Sunday and the employee usually works this day, then they are given a paid day off.

However, law limits employees to no more than four public holidays, regardless of work patterns.

The second category includes Good Friday and Easter Monday (dates variable), Queen’s Birthday (first Monday in June), Labour Day (fourth Monday in October) and Provincial Anniversary Day (date determined locally).

There are only three and a half days of compulsory shop closure per year. Christmas Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and until 1pm on Anzac Day.

According to a survey published by the Restaurant Association of New Zealand in March last year, just over half of the industry (59 per cent) open their businesses on public holidays, which was down from 62 per cent in 2010.

However, more business that do open are reluctant to slap on a surcharge, even if it means losing money that day. Many restaurant and cafe owners said their reason for doing so was a sense of public service.

In last year’s survey 62 per cent indicated they did not apply a surcharge, up from 45 per cent in 2010. For those who did apply a surcharge, the average amount was 15 per cent.

When the day arrives, my public-holiday-dread turns into frustration. The local cafe is closed, nobody is available for an interview, and, when I called the Department of Labour, I’m met with an automated response:

“Please call again on the next business day”.

Dessert storm

Until last week, I’d only experienced the best of Wellington’s weather.

Arriving from Auckland, Hamilton, Christchurch, Dunedin, – wherever I was living at the time – our capital always seemed bathed in sunshine.

And so it was when I arrived a fortnight ago, just in time to check the pulse of an allegedly dying city. Just in time to catch the last of the good weather before the storm set in.

Ah, but the next morning was frost-free, so I wore sandals to work.
(Indeed if Wellington was dead, I’d get to work five minutes earlier without the Willis Street peak-hour foot-traffic).

Activities, sites, people and places quickly filled my schedule. Wellington is a dessert I can never quite finish. As a “ghost-town” student, I found the central city overwhelmingly busy. When I wasn’t in the newsroom, I walked, everywhere, as much as possible.

Checking the pulse, you see.

On sunny afternoons I rested near the water, writing and completing assignments with ease thanks to the CBD wireless. The frenetic pace of the city centre was lulled by the presence of its harbour. The expanse of water provided breathing space and beautiful views. No doubt it’s linked to the sense of hope that pervades the city.

When it got colder, I retreated to the public library or – if there was any money in my wallet – to a nearby café.

Cafés are a delicious insight into any city’s artsy scene, don’t you think?
Wellington has more cafés per capita than any other city in New Zealand (and apparently even more than New York) – which to me was a sign of excellent health. Anyone who believes Wellington is dead can’t have been to Cuba Street on a Sunday; they’d be eating their words for brunch as they waited for a table at Floriditas.

Te Papa’s Warhol exhibition revealed that not only is Wellington alive, but she’s procreating. Audacious wee tykes dashed around the installations; their parents carefree as they admired the amphetamine-inspired exhibits. Regardless, Wellington’s capacity for culture and generally cool stuff is uplifting. Public sculptures adorn footpaths, the gardens are extensive, and even walkways (think City to Sea) are designed with creativity.

Wellingtonians themselves are living (living!) works of art in their bold attire. Designer, disco, dancer, grunge. Vintage hats, new hair. Business suits, preppy loafers, large glasses, colourful socks. Wellington’s got it all, and more.

But the streets quietened as clouds gathered and grew. The temperature dropped and wind boxed my ears as the storm began.

“If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best,” said Wellington.

Roads turned into puddles, thud, thud, thud became splash, slip, thud, but still I could feel the pulse of a living and kicking city beneath my cold, wet feet.

Oh, the irony – I forgot my wellies.




Wellington evening lights
Wellington: evening lights

Dispelling prejudices upon entering the blogosphere

I approached this task with a skepticism bordering on sheer reluctance.

You see, to me at least, the concept of blogging evoked brooding teens and a population of vegan-recipe-swapping leisure-class females.

Perhaps I was thinking of Pinterest.

Anyway, quick research revealed that my view of blogging was outdated.

Oh, I’m quite sure that pregnant women are still swapping sewing patterns for elasticated pants on Tumblr, but the frontiers of the blogosphere have been commandeered by an altogether more intellectual and opinionated crowd:


I’ve been living in a cave, according to Mark Glaser (and so has anyone else who “still believes that bloggers are one breed and journalists are another”).

Now that I’m a student journalist, not only do I have to vacate my cave, but I’m expected to join this online frenzy. “Student journalists have no excuse [to not have a blog]. Get a blog. Get writing. Get used to it.” Credit to Adam Westbrook for that wakeup call.

I like Mindy Mcadams’s metaphor of the blogosphere as a giant network of nodes (I admit, I initially misread “nodes” for “noses” and was baffled for several seconds by the notion of an online hongi).

A sense of interconnectivity is promoted amongst major bloggers – both individuals and media organisations. Indeed, Westbrook points out that “the thing that actually makes a blog a blog (and not a normal web page) is its RSS feed, which identifies each individual post as part of a larger series and delivers new posts to peoples’ newsreaders or inboxes.” (Side note: I still haven’t figured out how to use an RSS feed – feel free to enlighten me in the comments section).

So, what makes a good news blog? I consulted Annabel Candy’s blog for handy hints on “effective blog habits”, and her contributors provided – in my opinion – the most insightful tip of all: “Having a thick skin” is integral to being a successful blogger.

I’ll admit that I’m still struggling to place the light-hearted, often-personal culture of blogging within the realm of “hard-news” journalism.

What makes a good news blog?

Just today, I stumbled upon a recent post by our own Russell Brown on Public Address; it begins:

“Hello! I wrote up the following for this week’s Media3, but it didn’t make the cut. I thought it might make for a conversation-starter here…”

Although Brown’s facetiously self-deprecating comment suggests second-rate material, this post wasn’t necessarily unworthy of official publication. It was simply more suited to the multi-directional, multi-media platform of social critique that the blogosphere provides.

Not all bloggers are journalists, but almost all new journalists are bloggers. But, what does this mean for “news” in its traditional sense?

I’m not sure, exactly, how one should go about separating and appropriating their media “presence” to cater for today’s complex news industry.

How do journalists succeed at blogging while maintaining their status as credible, impartial observers?

Cartoon by Alex Gregory, New York Times
Cartoon by Alex Gregory