Photo: Duncan Brown/Napier Courier

I originally interviewed Napier, New Zealand-based author Charity Norman for a story that was published in the May 2, 2012 edition of the Napier Courier. Charity, who is related to Virgina Woolf, chatted with me for nearly 30 minutes. I wasn’t able to fit all of Charity’s quotes into the newspaper and so, in the interest of the world-wide writing community, I’ve decided to put together this blog post based on our conversation.

Charity, 47, was born in Uganda but grew up in England. After turning her back on a career as a barrister to concentrate on her writing, Charity and her Kiwi husband, Tim Meredith, moved to New Zealand in 2002 and then to Napier three years ago. They have three children.

Her first book, Freeing Grace, was published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen & Unwin in 2010. Her second book, Second Chances, will be published on July 2.

BMM: Did you always want to be a writer?

CN: Yes. As a child, I lived in Yorkshire and my father is a vicar – like the Bronte sisters, whose father was also a vicar. My father had seven children and Patrick Bronte had a similar number. I thought I was Emily Bronte as a child. I used to make up really appalling poetry. But, as life went on, I realised I needed a proper career and proper money. I was a barrister for about 15 years or so in the northeast of England. I practised in crime and family, which feed into (Freeing Grace). The book is about adoption and so I was able to use a lot of my experiences in court and experiences with working for local authorities taking children away from their parents or acting for parents attempting to have their children not taken away. All of that has fed into this book and the next and, I suppose, into my life.

BMM: Tell us about your first foray into writing, after you and Tim moved the family to New Zealand.

CN: The intention was I would have time to write, because I’d always wanted to, and I’d started a book after I had one of the children. I finished that book, which is now in a drawer, and I just kept writing. It’s very difficult to write in a vacuum, not knowing if you’re wasting your time, if you’re being selfish in throwing away financial stability for no reason. And then I started worrying that I was setting a bad example for the children. And then finishing the book and finding an agent and a publisher is such an incredibly nailbiting business. It was a huge process, that first (published)book.

BMM: What was your reaction to receiving the email from an agent asking to see the full manuscript?

CN: It was like a miracle because you can’t really believe it’s going to happen. You’ve lived in this vacuum for so long and you start to lose confidence and have this niggling doubt that you might be rubbish.

BMM: You’ve said that the hardest part came after you signed with an agent.

CN: When I got the agent, I was so happy. She is excellent and I thought it would be easy from there but, in some respects, it actually got so much harder. They wanted it rewritten. I did that, sent it back to the agent’s editor and I got an email back saying it’s not ready, you’ve got to rewrite it again. By the time I sent it back, that editor had left and the new one wanted different changes. I think I had four different editors and all of that was quite soul-destroying. I spent two years rewriting, which was an anxious time as I didn’t know if I’d ever get it sold at the end of it. Every line has been rewritten; some may have been rewritten 50 times. I’m not complaining because I genuinely think it was good for me. It was a great exercise. It was a bit like doing a degree in being forced to continually look at every sentence.

When my agent finally sent the book out, it sold within a few months.

BMM: What originally attracted the agent to your manuscript?

CN: They liked the writing, they liked the story. I think a good agent knows what she likes in terms of writing style. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t a rewriting test. Agents and publishers like to see an author who is prepared to rewrite. I do think the biggest secret to being a published writer is being prepared to take constructive criticism onboard. You’ve got to be able to cross it out and start again.

BMM: How would you describe your genre?

CN: I am not fond of pigeonholes but (the publishers) call it as ‘upmarket women’s fiction’. I don’t really try to write literary, because that can be incredibly boring. I want what I write to be very readable. I want it to be fun. I do have things I want to say but I want it to be entertaining at the same time. Daphne du Maurier, for example, writes really good stuff, but thoroughly readable. Intelligent fiction doesn’t have to be turgid and impregnable, as some work is. I care about the writing but it shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.

BMM: Reviewers have generally been kind to Freeing Grace. How do you react to having strangers comment on your work?

CN: I’ve got better at it but you find yourself doing sad, sad, sad things like Googling your own name, Or getting your child to. Here, in New Zealand, there was much more interest in me than there was in the book, which is perhaps a cultural thing because I’m local.

BMM: Do you write for love or money?

CN: For the love. Although, if I didn’t think it was going to bring in something, I’d feel tempted to go back to what was a lucrative job, an interesting job. (The book) has started to make more –  in particular the French have been really good and have sold many thousands of copies. That’s started to make more sensible money but if I worked out how much I was paid per hour for writing that first book, I suspect it would be half a cent, or something ridiculous.

BMM: With Second Chances hitting bookstores in July, are you worried at all about the dreaded sophomore slump?

CN: (With the first book) it was such a long slog – so many false dawns, so many times I thought they’d say this time it’s ready and it wasn’t – all those constant disappointments give you a better attitude. Eight years ago, I would have been biting my nails but I’ve got so much better at thinking, ‘I’ll just keep going. If it’s not selling, don’t panic. You’re lucky to be published.’ And I do feel so incredibly lucky to be published at all.

BMM: Tell us about your writing routine.

CN: In theory, it starts as soon as the children go to school. And I carry on without stopping, at all, until they come home from school, and then I write at night. In theory, I can go from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. In practice, someone phones, someone comes to the door, my husband walks in and out of the house saying annoying things, I have to go do this or that – so it never works like I’m hoping it will. And so I end up doing an awful lot late at night. When I get really desperate, I go stay in a cabin belonging to some lovely friends. Twice I have gone up there and done nothing but write for a week and that really helps. That’s really good for getting you over the hump.

The owners of Thorps Coffee House (in Napier) have also been incredibly good to me. When my house is chaotic, the washing has piled across all surfaces, the phone won’t stop ringing and I am completely desperate, I can go down there. It’s a haven. They let me plug my computer into their power source. I have a quiet table at the back that I think of as my emergency office. That and several cups of coffee – to which I am addicted – normally gets 1,000 words written. In fact (Second Chances) owes a lot to them.

BMM: Where do your book ideas come from?

CN: I used to take very long walks and a lot of ideas would simply come to me. I think that was a better way to write, to have time to let ideas form. I should make myself do that now more. Snippets from newspapers. The library. People tell you stories or you hear of stories. When you are thinking of things you can write about, things take on a different meaning to you.

BMM: What advice can you offer to new writers?

CN: Keep writing. You’ve got to write. A lot. Hone that skill. Never assume that you are skilled enough. You can always get better. Keep reading and keep rewriting. If you are criticized constructively, be grateful.

HBTV’s Simon Nixon (left) interviews Brown Girls author John Wesley Ireland during the taping of an episode of Chatroom. (Photo: Warren Buckland/Napier Courier)

The last time I wore makeup was when two small children decided to dress me up as a woman. I only held still because I was trying to impress their mother. Considering their mother and I have now been together for 20 years, it would appear enduring the assault on my manliness worked a charm.

My most recent brush with cosmetics came when the lovely Vania applied powder to my face in an effort to make it appear less full-moonish. Needless to say, the procedure used up an alarmingly large amount of her supply.

The reason Vania was doing her utmost to make me look presentable was my first TV appearance since I hosted a news magazine programme for Cook Islands TV. This time, however, I would be answering questions instead of asking them.

The occasion was the taping of an episode of Chatroom for Television Hawke’s Bay. Going into the studio, I still wasn’t sure why anyone would be remotely interested in anything I had to say. But, apparently, station director Judith Sawyer is a fan of this column and thought her viewing audience might be entertained by a veteran journalist with a novel to promote.

While I awaited my turn on the brown couch, I watched host Simon Nixon on the monitor as he interviewed a lady about her anti-fracking stance. She was well-spoken, well-informed and well-dressed. That’s when the nerves kicked in and, for a brief, terrifying moment, I was positive I’d start sweating through my makeup to the point where it would look as if my face was melting.

“Please buy my book before my forehead sloughs into my lap” is probably not the ideal marketing campaign.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. Simon and I hit it off right away and were soon nattering away like two old friends meeting in a cafe. If cafes came equipped with really bright lights and three large cameras and a microphone cord shoved down your shirt.

I told him about my journalism career and how I came to write my novel, Brown Girls, and why I’ve decided to market and sell it as an ebook through my own website.

The interview was divided into three segments, each consisting of eight minutes (commercials will fill out the rest of the 30-minute time slot), and my original fear of not being able to fill even one segment was quickly replaced by a fear of not having time to say everything I wanted to.

In the end, we never did talk about the Cook Islands photography book I hope to publish in an effort to raise money for the Red Cross.

Neither did I have the opportunity to mention the “A-ha!” moment.

This, of course, is not to be confused with the “Eureka!” moment or the “Woo-hoo!” moment. “A-ha!” is the noise I make when, while reading about a wildly-successful person, I come across the exact moment when they caught their big break. The hungry fashion photographer who drops into a fast-food outlet, only to stumble across the beautiful girl working behind the counter. Chris Klein charging around a corner in his high school and bowling over a talent scout looking to fill out the cast of American Pie.

We’ve all experienced such moments, the times where, for no good reason we can explain, we turned left when we had every intention of going right, and so met a future partner or the person who hired us for our dream job or somehow changed our lives.

Serendipity? Dumb luck? Good timing? Karma gods smiling? Best not to attempt to label it. Best to just sit back, hold on tight and enjoy the rocket ride to fame/success/riches/wild women.

I didn’t get to talk to Simon Nixon about “A-ha!” moments. Maybe because I’m meant to talk to him about that during our next interview. The one where, after this column is published, Brown Girls goes on to sell a million copies.

Someone should warn Vania she’s going to need a fresh supply of powder.

* The Chatroom interview featuring John Ireland will air Friday, May 11, 7.30pm on TVHB, UHF 51, and be re-broadcast the next day at 7.30am and 12.30pm. It will also be available for viewing at http://www.tvhb.co.nz

* For more information on Brown Girls, visit http://www.johnireland.co.nz

I’m guessing the first week of school after the Easter break in New Zealand was a quiet one, what with all the puberty-challenged girls having screamed themselves voiceless during the recent holiday break.

In what can only be described as teen idol overload, the nation’s tweeny population had barely packed away its homemade “I (heart) Reese” posters after the exit of Young Master Mastin when the lads from One Direction dropped by to be worshipped at the altar of estrogen. It was like being invaded by the Huns and Gauls in the same week. Where’s a good Hadrian’s Wall when you need it?

I saw them on the news, those hordes with their eyes blazing from adrenalin overload, their gaping mouths all a-silver with the best braces Daddy’s money can buy, their androgynous bodies quivering with what can only be described as mass hysteria.

What, I wondered, would they do if one of their plastic boys had actually stepped past the beefy security and waded into the crowd? What would their buzzy brains have thought to say? “OMG! LOL! Which Barbie shall we play with today? Oh, and can you help me with my homework? Starting with the correct spelling of ‘zealot’.”

Young females practically wetting themselves in the worship of music godlets is nothing new of course. They did it for Elvis. They did it for The Beatles. They will do it for someone else tomorrow.

I was 10 when A Hard Day’s Night came to the venerable Clova Theatre in Cloverdale, a dusty town known more for hosting one of North America’s largest rodeos than its appreciation of the arts. But the Clova was the closest cinema to my hometown and so one night my father bundled the family off to see the shaggy-haired Fab Four in their first flirtation with the silver screen.

The place was a madhouse, so full that the only empty seats available were in the “crying room,” a closed-in area off to the side where, behind layers of thick glass, mothers could deal to their cranky babies without disturbing the general audience. But even in an area designed to swallow the sounds of squalling bubs, we could hear the hysterical screams issuing from inside the theatre proper.

It was sheer pandemonium, absolute chaos, drowning out the film’s soundtrack and leaving my parents _ more accustomed to the soothing tones of crooners like Frank Sinatra and Perry Como and Nat King Cole _ shaking their heads in bewilderment.

While I will admit to singing along (very badly) at concerts, I have never _ ever _ felt the urge to scream like my hair was on fire.

Maybe it’s a man thing but I tend to save my lungs for events with the potential to forge history. Sporting events, for instance. And by sports I mean, of course, hockey.

 But even then, it’s not simple bellowing, but rather clever witticisms along the lines of “Hit him with your purse, ya wimp!” and “Hey ref, I found your guide dog!”. Loud, yes, but also supremely intelligent, as befits the male of the species.
I have no idea why young girls yelp at young men in mindless, gullible adoration, simply because said lads possess clear complexions, straight teeth and jeans so tight they threaten to cut off the circulation to their boy bits. Because we all know it’s less about pure talent and more about ‘there but for Simon Cowell go I’.

So here I sit, dazed and confused, curious as to why people who neither write their own songs nor play their own instruments manage to whip sweet young misses into whirling dervishes.

 I also can’t help but chuckle at the constant claims of how The Next Cute Thing is en route to becoming “bigger than The Beatles”. Justin Bieber was going to do that. So were the Bay City Rollers. Remember them? Yeah, neither do I.

Reprinted courtesy of the Napier (New Zealand) Courier.

The excitement around the office was palpable.

Another Mission concert! The crowds! The venue! The non-stop drinking! The music! The drinking!

Yes, sadly, it was the actual entertainment that was rated far down the list whenever war stories of past Mission mayhem were rehashed. One fellow employee recalled a pair of inebriated punters who passed out early and missed the entire concert.

My record of having never attended a Mission concert remains intact. Sliding around a grassy slope surrounded by 25,000 drunken louts spewing pre-digested alcohol on each other? Not gonna happen. It would take John and George returning from heaven’s rock’n’roll hall of fame for a Beatles reunion for me to even consider such an outing and even then I may just stay home and wait for the DVD.

 I don’t do live concerts anymore. I grew tired of scrambling for a parking spot, of elbowing my way into the venue, of being surrounded by mouth-breathing cretins, of coming home smelling like a grow op, of lying awake all night with my ears ringing, of doing the zombie shuffle at work after a hard day’s night.

Maybe I just grew old.

Maybe I’ve seen all I need to see. Springsteen: twice. (Best. Concerts. Ever.) Petty learning to fly. The Grateful Dead jamming for five hours straight. The Beach Boys when all three Wilson brothers were still alive.

The Beach Boys, in fact, broke my concert cherry. It was October 1973, the night before I flew to Europe for a six-month jaunt that lasted three weeks (some people say there was a woman to blame). We were crammed into some kind of performance hall at the University of British Columbia. The opening act was an obscure musician touring North America on the back of his first single, a little ditty called Piano Man.

“Billy Joel sucks!” some leather-lunged buffoon hollered from the cheap seats.

Years later, I saw Billy Joel in concert again. This time he was headlining and the crowd cheered his every song, his days of suckage obviously well and truly over.

The novelty of live performance came to an end for me in the ’80s. It was my daughter’s birthday. She was 10, or 11, or 12 or something. One of those ages when she still considered her old man cool. Especially when I bought tickets for her and a couple friends to see the New Kids on the Block at B.C. Place.

This is a venue custom-built for football and, as such, it works very well, what with its huge seating capacity. What the place doesn’t have is decent acoustics. Sound simply disappears into the far reaches of this covered dome, never to be heard again.

Not that it mattered to the thousands of pre-pubescent females in attendance. Their incessant screaming served to drown out whatever noise might have been issuing from the speakers.

I didn’t care about the music or the screams. Neither did the hundreds of other dads I met that afternoon. While Donnie Wahlberg and four nobodies shook their asses and yelped out songs they were four shades of Caucasian too white to own, I wandered through the covered concourse, looking at my watch, watching the other fathers — all of us reduced on that day to little more than chauffeur/chaperone status — and shaking our heads in sympathetic disgust whenever our eyes happened to meet.

It was painful at the time and the memory still haunts me. To paraphrase Rod the Mod himself, that last cut was the deepest.

The good news is that, some 25 years later, my eardrums hardly ever bleed anymore.

All that glitters . . .

Pip is 22. She’s blonde and she’s comely and, except for a thin layer of paint and glitter, she’s also pretty much naked.

Welcome to the world of body art. Where bare skin is both  encouraged and celebrated.

Pip – who, just for the record, is also clad in nipple covers and black knickers – is a living canvas for Jakkii Goody, the owner of Fabart, one of only two national face and body art companies in New Zealand. Jakkii is preparing for the January 26-29 New Zealand International Body Painting Competition in Taupo by doing a practice run. Tonight she has covered Pip’s torso with the painted version of an Art Deco-themed flapper dress.

I’ve shown up out to do an interview and take photos and give a pair of local ladies some welcome newspaper coverage.

That the two have teamed up is an example of happenstance: they’d met at an earlier event and just clicked.

Talent met body. Cue the magic.

“You certainly have to consider the anatomy and the body shape of the model you’re working with,” says Jakkii. “The breasts and the hips become a really great feature of body art.”

Pip certainly has the body for body art. I’m doing my best to be discreet but it’s not every day that I am in the same room with a shapely young miss displaying this much skin. Even if it is covered by glitter

Am I embarrassed? Yeah, probably. A little bit.

I’m also shy. Pretty girls, even fully clothed, tie my tongue and my shoelaces. I stumble in their presence because they intimidate me. I am overwhelmed by their beauty. I know: typical man.

“Focus on the eyes,” is a standard mantra for photographers and it was never more truer than tonight.

I ask Pip if she’s cold. She says no, because it’s a warm summer evening.

I ask her about the first time she offered her body up to art. It was at the event where she met Jakkii. Pip and a friend served beer. I ask if sales were brisk. She said yes. I ask if any of her customers tipped her. She says yes.

Pip says she wasn’t embarrassed to be clad in little more than paint.

“I felt like a star,” she says. “Everyone wanted to have photos taken with me. Everyone was looking at me as I walked through the crowd.”

I ask if she knows why they were looking.

She says yes.

We shake hands, I wish Jakkii good luck in the competition and I leave. Later, on the drive home, I replay the encounter in my mind. Did I jabber on too much in an effort to mask my discomfort? Did I take too many photos? Do I have one that will illustrate the story without showing so much skin that it causes some pensioner to choke on her porridge when the paper lands on her breakfast table?

My secret goal has always been to be a fashion photographer, to take photos of beautiful women in interesting settings and poses.

Now I’m reconsidering that goal. Maybe I should stick to writing and leave the camera work to those who are not so easily rattled.

Several years ago, a newspaper photographer told me a story about how a young lady had come into the office to ask him about becoming a model. She followed him into the darkroom (I told you it was years ago) where the fellow was developing photos for the next day’s edition. When he turned away from his chemical trays and back to the woman, she was sitting on the counter, completely naked.

I forget now how his story ended, but I do remember having two reactions:

1) Oh, man, that is so cool.

and

2) Oh, God, I hope that never happens to me.

Customer Support

Air New Zealand

Dear Sir/Madam:

Imagine this scenario, if you will:

You’ve saved long and hard for a new Ford car, paid the dealer in full and have all your paperwork in order. On the day you arrive to pick up the vehicle, however, the salesman meets you at the door with a sad expression on his face.

“During the night the wind blew a tree onto your Ford and completely destroyed it,” he says, wringing his hands. “It was an unfortunate incident for which we cannot in any way be held responsible. And, because it was not our fault, we’re not going to bother ordering in a replacement Ford, nor are we prepared to give you a refund.”

He dangles a set a keys in front of your nose. “What we will do, because you are a valued customer and we desire your future business, is put you into a used Holden. It’s not what you want, it’s not what you paid for, but look at this way: it will still get you where you want to go.”

That customer being screwed over? That’s me. The salesman with the slick pitch? That would be Air New Zealand.

Let me explain:

I was originally booked on Air NZ flight 83 – Vancouver to Auckland non-stop– due to depart at 19:00 on Friday, November 11. I was at YVR three hours ahead of time, as per requirements, only to be told by a gentleman standing by the Air New Zealand check-in counter that there was a problem. It had been a particularly windy day and, he informed me in hushed tones, a passenger bridge had been blown into the jet, causing external damage.

I was advised to come back in an hour for an update on the flight’s status.

Things weren’t quite as organized or efficient when I returned to the counter, if only because, by this time, several more passengers were present. Everyone was milling around, asking each other if anyone had any information. As a journalist, I’m accustomed to marching up and asking questions, and so I did just that.

I talked to a female employee this time and she seemed just as unclear on the situation as the rest of us. Yes, there had been damage caused to the exterior of the jet. No, we would not be flying out tonight. The plan, as she understood it, would see Air New Zealand bringing in a jet from Auckland to fetch us, but that would take at least 14 hours.

Passengers who had arrived on connecting flights would be put up in hotels; those of us who still had access to local accommodation were advised to go home and call Air New Zealand’s 1-800 number for updates on our flight.

OK, fine. Wind = act of God = no one’s fault. Crap happens. I get that.

Things, however, went swiftly downhill from there. Despite spending several hours dialling the 1-800 number, I was consistently greeted by a busy signal. The one time I did get through to a customer rep, I was told, in a rather cavalier manner, that passengers on NZ 83 were simply being flipped onto Sunday’s (Nov. 13) flight, because it was the next available non-stop flight on the schedule.

Not good enough, I said. That flight doesn’t arrive in New Zealand until Tuesday morning (Nov. 15) and I have to be at work Monday morning.

Plan B, I was told, was to fly to Los Angeles on Saturday, Nov. 12, and catch the LA-Auckland flight that night. LAX? Seriously? The main reason the non-stop flight is so popular is because no one in his or her right mind wants to endure the ninth ring of Hell that is LAX.

Not good enough, I repeated. If I wanted to experience the dubious joys of LAX, that’s the ticket I would have bought in the first place. Like the Ford lover in the above story, my expectations were simple: I wanted what I paid for. No more, and certainly no less.

Since it was obvious that would not be happening, I asked if Air New Zealand had any plans to compensate me for this major inconvenience. And that’s when the line went dead. Must have been the wind again. Yeah, right.

In the end, as the hour grew late and I started to panic about confirming flights, I took the drastic action of making two long-distance calls to the Air New Zealand office in New Zealand. The first time I was told I’d already been tentatively booked on flights that would see me fly out of LAX on the Saturday evening. The second call, made two hours later in an effort to confirm that booking, revealed there was no evidence at all on the computer of that earlier booking, tentative or otherwise.

I was finally confirmed to fly Vancouver-LAX-Auckland, but it took several hours, two expensive phone calls and much frustration on my part before all the arrangements were made and the keys to the Holden were thrown in my face.

Did I mention that I ended up in Los Angeles without any U.S. cash or that I was still in the process of travelling a day after my travel insurance expired?

Did I mention that a day meant to be spent relaxing at home, adjusting to the time difference and recharging my batteries before heading back to work found me, instead, spending eight hours in LAX?

The part that really pisses me off is this: not once did anyone say they were sorry.

Not a single person had the common courtesy, the common decency to say, “Despite this unfortunate incident being the result of a random and unpredictable Act of God – meaning Air New Zealand can in no way be held responsible – I apologize.

“I apologize that you were forced to spend eight hours sitting on your arse in a terminal in LAX and that, because of that, you lost an invaluable part of your life that could better have been spent making love to your wife or massaging your leg muscles back to life after a long, cramped flight, or mowing the lawn or throwing the ball for the dog.

“You had a miserable day and, on behalf of Air New Zealand, I’d just like to say I’m sorry.”

I paid for the Ford in good faith and then had no choice but to accept the Holden or forfeit a day’s wages. Yeah, I’m guessing the very least I’m owed is an apology.

Well that, and two complimentary tickets to somewhere hot.

I’m thinking Rarotonga.

Regards

Little Old Lady has haunted me my entire journalism career.

I’ve never actually met her but I imagine her to be sour of expression, someone who stands in her front yard shaking her cane at the kids playing in the street, berating them for being too loud, having too much hair, wearing their pants too low and their baseball caps backwards.

She owns a small dog and feeds it slices of cheese even though that nice man on the TV says human food is not good for animals. She knits while she watches daytime soaps and yells at the characters for being gullible fools. She doesn’t answer the phone if it rings during American Idol, thinking only an idiot would dare interrupt quite possibly the greatest entertainment ever invented.

She forgets where she put her glasses. She sometimes forgets to put her teeth in. She believes anyone who survived the Great Depression and the Second World War has the God-given right to bitch about everything and anything.

And, oh yeah, she hates me. Or, more specifically, my writing. In fact, she hates all journalism.

I know this to be true because every newspaper I’ve ever worked for — a Times, a Star, a News, a Herald, another Herald and now a Courier — fear Little Old Lady more than they fear the Internet.

Which is why every story I’ve ever written — every story you see printed in a respectable newspaper — has to pass this litmus test: Will it offend Little Old Lady? If an editor experiences even the slightest niggle that Little Old Lady will take umbrage with the content, the story will be edited or quite possibly  killed.

Little Old Lady enjoys sharing her opinions. Her morals violated by something she finds offensive, she will phone an editor to vent her spleen. Or, even worse, mail (!) a handwritten (!!) letter explaining, in no uncertain terms that, should the paper continue to print such objectionable trash, she will have no alternative but to cancel her subscription. No one has the balls to tell Little Old Lady that the paper is actually delivered free.

I was envisioning Little Old Lady this week while writing a story about a new horse trail. On the surface, this is not the sort of story that would normally raise wrinkled hackles but my plan was to use the word “shirty” to describe some rather nasty people who’d objected to equestrian invaders.

“Shirty” is one of those Kiwi-isms Viking Woman and I encountered when we moved to New Zealand. I know it’s not a real (read: North American) word but I have this sneaky hunch Kiwis use it in polite company when what they really mean is “shitty.”

Is Old Little Old Lady going to read that sentence and not give it a second thought because, after all, that’s how everyone speaks here?

Or will she stop short, raise a weathered eyebrow, clack her dentures in disgust and reach a quivering hand for the phone?

I guess I’m about to find out. Wish me luck.

There are three words you don’t want to hear while en route to a rugby match: “Is that rain?”

Uh, yes, in fact it was. Within minutes of leaving our house – and our raincoats – to head to Napier’s McLean’s Park for a Rugby World Cup clash between Canada and France, the heavens opened, meaning Viking Woman and I were pretty much soaked before we’d even entered the grounds. This despite the fact we were wearing our official Vancouver 2010 Winter Games hoodies.

That’s OK, we thought, because at least we have seats in the grandstand, as opposed to General Admission tickets where you stand out in the open at one end of the field. At least we’ll be able to watch the game from a dry vantage point.

I don’t know which is more disturbing: being told our seats were, in reality, on the “drip line” (read: the topmost row NOT sheltered by the grandstand’s roof); observing French rugby fans wearing chickens on their heads; or glancing up from the urinal to see a man being zipped into a white body suit.

I’m going to go for c), because no man should ever wear something that tight.

As for the headgear, it turns out the rooster is France’s national symbol. Maybe it’ s just the way my brain works, but I’m thinking how easy it is to connect the dots between rooster hat, cock head and dickhead. OK, that might have just been my personal bias against French, seeing how it was the only subject I failed in high school. And, yes, I am still bitter.

(It was reported later than one French fanatic was escorted from the park after the local gendarmes caught him, red-handed, relieving himself in public. Which begs the question, is that a cockerel in your pants or are you just glad to see me?)

Along with rooster heads, there were plenty of berets in the crowd, along with tri-coloured fright wigs. Not to be outdone, the Canadians sported cowboy hats, RCMP Stetsons and plastic goalie masks. There might have been a moosehead or two but, alas, not a single beaver.

One enterprising young man donned a complete set of hockey gear, minus the skates. His costume included helmet, a Team Canada jersey, shoulder pads, pants and shin guards. Considering that his luggage allowance would have been limited to one suitcase weighing no more than 23 kgs (50 pounds), he must have sacrificed a lot of clean underwear to show rugby-mad Kiwis what a real sport looks like.

Due to the unexpected deluge, a lot of creative costumes were hidden by garbage bags and plastic ponchos (the sales of which, at $5 a pop, probably outstripped that of beer).

Painted faces soon resembled The Joker more than flags. One supporter sported a sign saying “I (heart) Canada” only to have the illustration very quickly became a bleeding heart.

As for the game itself, let’s just say France was ranked fifth of the 20 participating teams and Canada 15th. The boys in red put up a decent struggle but, as many of Canada’s hockey teams have learned the hard way when playing on an international stage, penalties will kill you.

The final score : France 46 Canada 19.

As for the rain, it stopped sometime during the second half. Soaked and freezing, we hardly noticed.

Imagine, if you will, combining the excitement of the Olympic Games with the Super Bowl, the seventh game of the World Series and the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final. And then multiply it by a million.

Welcome to the Rugby World Cup.

And welcome to New Zealand, which is hosting this wondrous event from Sept. 9 to Oct. 23.

A tree cosie shows its true colours on Dalton Street in Napier, New Zealand.

I had to make several adjustments when Viking Woman and I moved from Canada to New Zealand. Among those was learning to ignore the sports news.

Where, at home, I’d devour every story and game summary and relish every highlight of every game in the National Hockey League, I quickly discovered Kiwis don’t give a rat’s bum about my favourite sport.

“Too violent,” they sniff. “Too many pads.”

In fact, mention “hockey” in New Zealand and everyone assumes you’re talking “field hockey.” “Ice hockey” is the rather ignominious term Kiwis use on the rare occasion they bother referring to the fastest team sport in the world.

English sports reign here. That means the likes of cricket and polo and lawn bowling and rowing. All of which bow down to King Rugby.

“Husky men in tight jerseys and short shorts,” I sniff. “The very definition of macho, I’m sure.”

I don’t understand the game – if there is a difference between Rugby and Rugby League I’ve yet to discern it – and I don’t really care. But these days it’s all Rugby World Cup all the time.

Napier is, in fact, hosting two of the games, as  some of the lesser matches (read: any game that doesn’t feature the All Blacks) are being spread around the provinces so even small-town hicks like us can be fleeced by high ticket prices.

As it happens, both games in Napier feature Canada. I may not have any love for rugby, but I still have a maple leaf tattooed on my heart, metaphorically speaking, of course. So Viking Woman and I will attend one of those games – probably vs France on Sept. 18 – during which we will dust off our Vancouver Summer Games apparel, including the red mitts, the idea being to eliminate any doubt as to which country we are supporting.

The interesting part about Canada taking part in this tournament – apart from the fact there are actually enough players of this calibre in the country to make up a team – is the world’s perception of my motherland. And by world I mean those people who put together the program information packages about each of the 20 participating countries.

I particularly enjoyed reading the cuisine entries in each country’s fact box. Apparently, we Canucks tend to fill our faces with poutine, butter tarts and maple syrup. Say what? No pancakes? No Tim Horton’s doughnuts? No chocolate-covered jujubes?

Aside from poutine – does anybody outside of Quebec actually consume that crap? – our food loves are at least palatable. As opposed to, say, Scotland (haggis, oats, potatoes), Namibia (bush stew) or Wales (what the hell are cawl and laverbread?).

As for our American cousins, there isn’t a single slice of apple pie or a ballpark dog on their list. Instead, we are told Yankee Doodle dandies chow down on crab cakes and potato chips. Oh. Really.

So, yeah, the Rugby World Cup is already proving interesting even before the first ball is, well, whatever it is they do with their balls down here.

It’s funny how fame can brush up against us ordinary folk, like a butterfly flitting past our faces while we daydream in the hammock on a lazy summer day.

Tina Turner once waved and smiled at me as she bee-lined through the lobby of the theatre I managed, a brief glimmer of appreciation for the fact I’d roped off a row of seats so she and her entourage could sneak in after the lights went down.

As an entertainment reporter, I’ve interviewed the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sean Astin, director Curtis Hanson and author Anne Rice.

And now, it turns out, I also have a connection with Richard Lam.

Right about now, you’re probably asking yourself Richard who? He’s the photographer who, while in the employ of Getty Images, snapped the photo of the couple kissing as chaos swirled them during the Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver (see photo with this post).

Richard and I once worked together at the Langley Times. During my 11 years with the newspaper, I saw several weekend-slash-holiday relief photographers come and go and Richard was one of them. I can’t honestly say I knew him well but I did consider us friends and so am going to bask in a bit of his glory, in one of those “Hey, I know that guy” moments.

I have to admit to being dubious when I first saw the photo of Australian Scott Jones lying in the middle of the street with his new Canadian girlfriend, Alex Thomas.

My initial thought was that the shot had been set up. One of those, “Yo, buddy, take our photo while we pretend to make out in the middle of this riot. It will look so cool on my Facebook page.”

It was either that or one of those moments of wild, unleashed, unbridled passion where you just want to holler, “Hey, you two! Get a room! Preferably one without burning cars.”

But, according to quotes from Richard, and amateur video that has since emerged, the photo is genuine, that after being knocked over by the police riot squad, Scott is consoling Alex as madness reigns around them.

Richard admitted he didn’t even know he had taken a shot that would eventually become an Internet sensation and be printed in newspapers all over the world (including both major dailies here in New Zealand) until a fellow photographer saw it on a Getty computer as Richard’s memory card was being downloaded.

It seems Richard was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time with a camera. I know the feeling. Not the international acclaim, mind you, but the thrill of capturing a random, candid moment. I favour photographing people going about their lives, usually at markets or fairs or parades or other public gatherings, and am constantly amazed at what I called “happy accidents.”

That’s where I’ve captured – via a combination of good fortune, good timing and having a good camera pressed to my face at that precise instant – an expression, a gesture that defies that subject at that exact moment in time.

Of course, my minor masterpieces are consigned to my Flickr page and are seldom recognized, never mind lauded and applauded like Richard’s shot.

Meaning that, once again, I shall have to content myself with sidling up to fame and waving madly in the background.