Witten's Christmas Letter for 1996

Tauwhare Road
New Zealand
December, 1996


Well, hello again. It's been another hectic year for us. And every year, we start on the Xmas letter later. Now its December already and summer is upon us. The girls have suggested various excuses ("just tell them you've got RSI and can't type at all ..."), but we've decided to take advantage of a wet Sunday (after a few days of fabulous sunny sailing) to spend an hour or two at the keyboard.

We ended last year's letter with a brief account of Ian's love affair with a lady who turned out to have three cracked ribs. Well, he ditched her. But on the same day, doubtless on the rebound, he fell for a much younger lady who became part of the family just before Christmas and has occupied a great deal of his attention since then. Beulah is just twenty years old, but with classic good looks that belie her youth. She was named after a line in an early Mae West film, "peel me another grape, Beulah," to represent the very height of decadence. She's 28 feet long with a white hull, varnished topsides, and a lovely teak deck. She sleeps four--two in luxury, three in comfort, five at a very considerable pinch--in two single quarter berths, cabin seats that make into a sort of double bed, but divided strategically by the mast support (as someone said, a double bed designed to prevent what double beds were invented for in the first place), and a pipe cot in the fo'c'sle that is invariably stuffed with sails. There's a two-burner gas stove, sink, and toilet and washbasin in the fo'c'sle. A plain sloop rig, we have a fully battened mainsail and several foresails, ranging from an enormous genoa to a small, reefable, working jib, along with a dauntingly large light-weather spinnaker. She's equipped with a 15 horsepower two-cylinder marine diesel engine, with folding propeller.

For the technically-minded, Beulah is built from double-diagonal Kauri planking--a very strong construction, with a layer of epoxy between the skins. She has been fibreglassed over, combining the strength and look of wood with the water-resistance and easy maintenance of fibreglass. The hull is laid on inch-by-inch stringers spaced on about four-inch centres, again very strong. She's a New Zealand designed class boat (Nova 28), and was used as the "plug" or mould from which fibreglass Novas were made. The plug must be very smooth and fair to ensure that the replicas are of high quality; hence the unusually fine spacing of the stringers. We haven't yet made real contact with the other Novas, although we belong to the Nova Association along with a dozen or two others and receive a newsletter periodically.

Beulah is a great sailing boat. Her previous owner used to race, in the fanatically competitive way that New Zealanders do, and cleaned up in the annual Nova regatta. She handles very responsively, like a dinghy, with a finger-light tiller and just a touch of weather helm when well heeled. When you release the tiller she sails along closehauled by herself for many minutes, keeping just as close to the wind as possible--better than most human helmsmen. This means that Ian can work on the foredeck when sailing single-handed, and also ensures that he takes great care not to fall overboard! Beulah is exceptionally well organised for sailing: all halyards are led back to the cockpit, as is the mainsail outhaul and spinnaker boom controls. On the other hand, she's not really arranged for easy cruising: there's neither jib furler nor anchor winch, and the anchor needs to be manually stowed below decks every time it is used. This provides good exercise for the captain and crew.

We keep Beulah at Pine Harbour marina, just south of Auckland on the Hauraki Gulf--near Maraetai, and just across from Waiheke island, if you have a map handy. The marina is really nice (and correspondingly expensive), isolated from the main road but with full facilities including chandler and boatbuilder, and a really fancy travel-lift which can raise even 40-ton boats and transport them to the boatyard. Beulah stays afloat year-round, apart from a brief haulout for annual maintenance. Security is excellent, not only guarding against unwanted visitors but also checking that boats remain properly moored and don't sink! A mile-long dredged channel gives access to the marina at any state of the tide. It's an hour and forty-five minute drive from home, but once there we're right in the middle of New Zealand's--no, the world's!--prime cruising waters.

We've been out sailing every month except when Ian was in Europe. Almost always we stay overnight, or for a long weekend, and on one occasion Ian was on board for nearly a week. A nice way to spend 24 hours is to arrive at the boat in the evening, head out, perhaps sailing a little in the dark (we have full navigation lights and have wrestled a few times with the challenges and excitement of night sailing), anchor for the night in a secure bay and watch the moon over a meal and bottle of wine, then up in the morning for pancakes, coffee, a sail, and back home the next day. Ian has taken Beulah as far as Coromandel harbour (east, on the Coromandel peninsula), Kawau island (north), and Auckland (north and west), and has sailed with many different friends in various combinations. This is the place to admit, in case you hadn't already guessed, that he is much keener than the rest of the family! Pam likes to sail now and again, though not too far and not for too long; she's slowly gaining a decent pair of sealegs. Nikki has been out a couple of times but hasn't really enjoyed it, feeling nauseous most of the time. Anna didn't even clap eyes on the boat for the first ten months; however she has recently enjoyed a couple of day trips and is ready for more.

We've done lots of things in Beulah. We've watched dolphins gambol around the bows, seen a shark and many little penguins. We've anchored in bays on a dozen different islands, with many more left to explore within long-weekending distance. We've had delicious meals, including a flambXed dessert that a friend served up just a couple of days ago. We've waited impatiently for ten o'clock when we could decently open the first beer of the morning, sipped Chardonnay on a calm afternoon, and warmed ourself with a tot of rum on chilly evenings. We've hidden our bodies in sarongs from the burning sun, watched the moon rise over gently-rippling water at dusk, and lain on deck gazing at fabulous star-studded night skies. We've enjoyed, with friends and a bottle or two of wine, a magnificent marine firework display, based on three barges in Auckland Harbour, and, when it finished, joined a long, ghostly procession of other boats sailing out through the night to island anchorages. We've sailed right alongside a replica of Captain Cook's Endeavour: we were close-hauled and hard-pressed to keep up, which was disturbing until we noticed that, despite appearances, its square sails were aback and it was steaming along under a powerful, though anachronistic, engine. We've passed the square-rigged training ship Spirit of New Zealand. We've skinny-dipped by moonlight amid bright flashes of phosphorescence. And we've had one or two scary, adrenalin-pumping experiences as well--but of these, the less said the better.

(If you use the World-Wide Web, check out Beulah: it's such an unusual name that any search engine will find Ian's home page easily. Pam, Anna and Nikki complain that they get just one group photo and a brief word each, whereas the boat gets pages and pages of pictures and description.)

Although you are probably beginning to think otherwise, we have this year participated in real life outside sailing. In the annual Hamilton to Whangemata bike ride (125 km) just before Christmas, Ian (along with the whole ToURING MACHINES team) finished in under five hours. However, neither the feat nor, it seems, the ride will be repeated this December. He has done much travelling this year, with a conference trip to Melbourne, Australia, early on, a three-conference trip to Washington DC, Palo Alto California, and Snowbird Utah, in late March and early April, a mammoth European tour in May, June and July, and a conference trip to San Francisco in October--as well as brief trips to Christchurch, Wellington, and Auckland. Three northern hemisphere visits in one year is just too much.

In March, Pam and a couple of friends (Dorothy Cleary and Sheila Robinson) spent a long weekend in Wellington during the Reader's and Writer's week of the annual Festival of the Arts. They stayed in a self-catering hostel on the seafront close to downtown and all the action, and had a wonderful time immersed in plays, movies, and panel discussions with authors such as Keri Hulme (The Bone People), Carol Shields and E Annie Proulx. Between such rarefied events there was plenty of walking and sampling of local pubs and restaurants.

Late in May, Ian went to Northern Ireland for a week or two to celebrate his father's 90th birthday along with most of the Witten clan. Visiting Northern Ireland was an interesting experience: first time since 1989. You forget the beauty of Strangford Lough, where Mum and Dad live at Whiterock, and of the Antrim coast, where he spent a lovely day with sister Pippa and niece Claire. You also forget the rain, in which he spent a day, again with long-suffering Pippa and Claire, in the Mourne Mountains. They say that if you can see the Mournes it's about to rain whereas if you can't see them it's already raining, well we saw absolutely nothing that day. Since the house at Whiterock was full he was relegated to a tent in the garden with nephew Michael, a weird out-of-time experience since many boyhood summers were spent in a (very similar) tent with Michael's (very similar) father, brother Brian. He crewed in a race in a lovely classic keelboat with (among others) Claire, another weird out-of-time experience since he used to race regularly with (also very similar) Pippa all those years ago. Oops ... having probably insulted nearly everyone in the family, let's pass quickly on.

On to Sheffield, for a walk in the rain in the Peak Country with Brian and family, and some epicurean wining and dining. To York for a brief visit with old Essex friends, and a seminar, and then Loughborough for another. To Bonn from Manchester airport, arriving sans luggage (for British Airways hadn't kept up the pace) but with seminar notes in hand, which was just as well because the seminar was that very afternoon. Meals by the Rhine, hikes through ancient vineyards. Off to Heathrow to stay with Harold Thimbleby and family for a couple of weeks in the peaceful Hertfordshire countryside, along with distinctly not-so-peaceful travel to work at Middlesex University in North London. A nostalgic, if hazily-remembered, evening with Pete and FranXoise from university days ever so long ago, and another nostalgic weekend in Wivenhoe, including a seminar at Ian's old department there and plenty of drinks on the quay. Off again to Germany, this time to stay with friends in Karlsruhe and a wonderful day in Heidelberg. Then (via Gatwick--I know you won't believe it, but it's true) to Salerno in Italy, just south of Naples, for a seminar and a weekend. Off to Bari on the east coast of Italy for a conference. Then home via Heathrow, quite exhausted, only to be delayed for a very short night in Los Angeles by the volcano erupting in central New Zealand. Six and a half weeks away, seven separate visits to London airports, fourteen flights, plus trips by train, hired car, long-distance bus--has to be some kind of a ghastly record. But it was a very enjoyable and worthwhile, if exhausting, trip.

Talking of the volcano--although Ruapehu is only a couple of hours drive from us and can be seen from the top of Hamilton's tallest building (a mere seven stories) , life was not in the least affected by the eruptions except that the airport was sometimes closed at night because of drifting, incredibly gritty, volcanic ash in the upper atmosphere. Contrary to reports in some European newspapers, the North Island was not evacuated.

It never rains but it pours: Pam has been inundated with jobs this year. She has continued her job at a local primary school, working one-on-one in the classroom with two severely intellectually handicapped children and others with learning difficulties, all integrated into regular classes. Her hours have been increased to three days a week, which is just the right level for her. In fact they encouraged her to apply for a position as stand-in regular teacher for several months. But she decided not to, for her life is already full to overflowing. Because there's more! She also organises the school recorder group at lunchtimes. And more! She was called in to help in the museum shop, where she worked before, for a couple of mornings a week. This is quite restful by comparison with the school, because the shop is often very quiet--though she does a good job of selling when visitors to Hamilton drop in. But that isn't all! She has three private recorder pupils, once a week, and her teaching looks like it's still on the increase. And yet more! She teaches at Saturday morning music school, several recorder classes, and enjoys the enthusiasm of kids and parents alike. You won't believe this, but there's even more! She looks after a family of four, keeps them fed and clothed, happy and contented, drives them around, plays hostess to their friends. What a busy life.

Anna has had a good year, and we think it has contributed to her development in a very positive way. She has been studying Travel and Tourism at the local Polytechnic, and has picked up all sorts of useful skills including mixing drinks. Of course we encourage her to practise at home, which is great for us--for she shakes a mean Martini! As part of her course she had to do two weeks' work experience in a tourism-related position, for which she chose the Budget car rental company. Although a little dubious at first, she found that she really enjoyed the work--especially driving all those flashy cars! And she obviously did well, for she received an excellent reference at the end of the period. She has been much more motivated by her work this year than she ever was at school, and although we don't yet know her final results she seems to be doing well.

But the big news is that she moved out at Easter-time! It was a bit of a shock; in fact Ian arrived back early one morning from a three-week North American trip to learn that she was moving out at lunchtime. There was no problem but she wanted more freedom to find her own way, and despite distinctly anxious parents that's exactly what happened. After a few months the flat she was in broke up, but instead of coming home she decided to move into another shared house, this time with three boys. We were secretly impressed that she didn't beat a retreat for home at the first sign of difficulty but sought to continue her independent life! And this situation was excellent: the boys taught her to cook, and she taught them to clean--with mixed success on both sides. One of their fathers was a farmer and meat was plentiful; they seemed to have roast dinners most nights.

Anna's big hobby is people. She is really very interested in people, has a vast circle of acquaintances, and seems to know everyone, everywhere. She has found this year that she gets on better with her peers in the course at Polytechnic than she did with those at school. In fact, she has settled down a lot and seems much calmer now, though she still leads what seems to us like a fairly riotous life. Early in the year she had a great time with Naomi, daughter of friends from Calgary who visited Ian's department here for several months on sabbatical. But she's also been through some difficult times. She went to the doctor about a small problem with her skin, around the collarbone area, that he thought was just a minor blemish. To be safe he had it biopsied and it turned out to be a melanoma. So off she went to hospital to have a much larger piece taken out. Luckily there was no problem with that: it seems the doctor got it all the first time--though quarterly checkups will be needed for the next few years. And one of her friends committed suicide in Wellington during the year. But Anna seems to have come out of it all ok.

When she was staying in the flat she used to visit us for the odd weekend, occasionally bringing a flatmate for a decent feed. She would gaze at the open fridge, loudly exclaiming "I can't believe you've got so much food!" Now she has decided to move back home for a few months, so that she can pay off some bills and save some money for her trip to Canada next year. She still works in McDonalds, but is greatly at the mercy of their rostering policy. Recently she has been getting fewer hours than she would like and is thinking of applying for a waitressing job after Christmas. She plans to travel to Calgary early in March and stay for several months, hopefully finding a job in the tourism industry. The rest of us will be in Calgary too for the latter part of the year, and we're not sure whether she'll be staying with us or we'll be staying with her!

Nikki is in the Sixth form, with just one more school year to go. She has been doing really well. Her forte is English, and she has been coming in the first three in her year with many flattering compliments from her English teacher. She took up Drama, which she decided on partly to help gain confidence in public speaking. And what a wonderful course it turned out to be! With her class she has visited Auckland's posh Aotea Centre to see the ballet Swan Lake, the opera Tosca, and the musical New Mikado. For Shakespeare she has seen King Lear and the Tempest in Auckland, and Romeo and Juliet in Hamilton. She also took in The Secret Garden and The Gondoliers. She is now by far the most cultured among us. In order to thank her drama teacher (who is also her English teacher), she arranged a very pleasant barbecue in our garden the other day for him, his wife, and the whole drama class. Her other subjects have been Mathematics, in which she continues to try hard without achieving as much success as we think she deserves, Biology, where she is doing really well, and French, which her school only offers as a correspondence course--not a very satisfactory arrangement for Nikki.

Next year she has decided to change schools. Enough of the fancy private school, Nikki wants to experience something closer to real life in the local High School in Hamilton--which is quite good academically, particularly for self-starters like Nikki. One reason is that she wants to meet a wider range of people. Another is that she will be able to join a proper French class. Also, she has become frustrated by the extra constraints that are an inevitable part of study at a boarding school. As well as French she will be taking English, Biology, Maths with Statistics, and--as a new subject--Classics. (Unfortunately, Drama is not a Seventh form subject.) We have some reservations about changing schools just before the end of her school career, but Nikki has thought it through and is determined, and we are anxious to avoid what happened with Anna, who changed halfway through her final year. Here in New Zealand it seems fairly common to enter a new school for the last year.

We hope and pray that her boyfriend is not the real reason for this change! At the beginning of the year Nikki, who unlike Anna at that age had never been much concerned about boy-girl relationships, met Jake. He called her quite out of the blue. Apparently he had been confined to barracks for some misdemeanour. Desperate for something to do, he tidied up his room only to find an ancient postcard that Nikki had sent when she was visiting Calgary with us two years earlier, for she knew him then slightly. He phoned her for a lark, and so began a momentous affair. Nikki now hangs out with Jake and his cronies, and has apparently been deemed an "honorary male" because of her skill at video games. We like Jake and his friends. Anna is horrified at how leniently we treat Nikki ("you would never have let me do that at her age") and we point out that we must have learned from our experience with her!

Nikki has also being doing work experience, a week with the Society for Prevention for Cruelty to Animals mucking out kennels and catteries--an unsavoury but not unpleasant experience. In November she spent a week at Leadership Camp, taking part in some exciting activities--falling out of a whitewater raft and being pulled down rapids underneath it, enthusiastically playing the Ultimate Game, a team-based war game with guns and paint bullets in which you try to capture the other team's flag, and listening to some interesting lectures about leadership and leadership styles.

Our house still rings with music. Nikki plays piano, and as always she plays simply but sensitively, for enjoyment. She still goes to lessons and has learned many new pieces--in fact, she can play almost any song by Andrew Lloyd Webber that you care to name. It's lovely to hear her sit down to play in a quiet moment for the sheer fun of it.

Pam's recorder playing is going from strength to strength. She continues as President of the Hamilton Recorder Society, having failed, by popular acclaim, to resign this position, despite a desperate attempt brought on by pressure of other activities. Her music teaching career is getting under way, with private pupils, Saturday morning music school , and lunchtime music at school. She takes lessons once a month from a very good recorder teacher in Auckland, and plans to sit Grade Eight music exams next year--very advanced stuff. On her monthly visits to Auckland she enjoys her brother Graham's hospitality, plays in the Recorder Society there, and also participates in a rather good recorder quartet, which has just begun to take group lessons. The other three members also play as a trio, but they are keen for Pam to join in and travel every month to Te Kauwhata, halfway between Hamilton and Auckland, to meet her and practise together in a community hall that they rent for the princely sum of $5 for the whole afternoon. Thus, with her visits to Auckland, the quartet plays every two weeks. In March Pam was asked to bring together a group to play medieval music for a 21st birthday party on an estate in nearby Cambridge. It's the first time she'd taken on any kind of music programming, and found her years of Calgary Early Byrd experience an enormous help. She dusted off her cornemuse, borrowed a crumhorn, took her medieval costume out of mothballs, and with four friends managed to assemble enough music to play for the required three hours. Thus began Ad Hoc Baroque. In September she drove to Wellington with a friend for the biennial Recorder Week there and had a terrific time, immersed in musical activities morning, afternoon, and evening. They bring excellent teachers out from Europe and elsewhere, and the week's highlight was a concert given by a talented young recorder virtuoso from Venezuela (who was also one of the tutors). By the time she returned Pam was saturated with music, but nevertheless glad to leave behind the night-time coughs, snores and wheezes of dormitory accommodation.

And Ian continues to play all kinds of music. His jazz trio became a quartet, then the pianist left for California which reduced them to a trio again: bass, guitar, and clarinet. Two computer scientists and a philosopher, they play a wide variety of jazz, try to practise every week, think they are getting much better, but still have regrettably few gigs, maybe one a month or so--some for meals but none for money. The clarinet quartet he organises has been having a lot of fun, with weekly meetings as either quartet or trio, and has also been indulging in some jazz along with the regular diet of modern classical music. In fact at a recent jazz evening at a church in Hamilton, Ian led two of the four groups that were playing there! He continues as second clarinet in the Waikato Sympathy Orchestra (they don't like him calling it that), and plays duets occasionally. The clarinet quintet that he plays in has been dormant this year; probably just as well for sanity's sake. On a visit to Christchurch in September he played a couple of gigs in a group down there. His real business was examining a PhD in Electrical Engineering, but he also gave a seminar in Computer Science and played much music. Probably for the first time ever in history he awarded a PhD in the morning and provided musical entertainment in the evening at the restaurant/bar in which the newly-crowned Dr celebrated with friends. In a less successful musical adventure, brother Brian arranged for him to sit in with one of his jazz groups at lunchtime in the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield; not a success, for the music was too different and a crestfallen Ian did rather badly.

In July we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, a quiet family time with Anna and Nikki at our favourite local restaurant. We have seen the usual steady stream of visitors throughout the year. In January we hosted Nikki's crew for their annual rowing camp, ten 16-year old girls for a week. Pam looked after everything while Ian spent the evenings lancing blisters. Pam's aunt Sheila dropped by in March for a few days. Various friends from Calgary spent time with us. A special treat was a visit by old friends from our Wivenhoe days--most of our non-family visitors seem to be North American rather than English. Various of the girls' friends drop in for a night or a weekend. When Craig, ex-graduate student and ex-pianist with Ian's jazz group, won a PostDoctoral Fellowship at Stanford University in California, he and his partner Kirsten stayed with us for a few days before leaving upon their next adventure. Apparently this impressed his new supervisor over there so much that his family put Craig and Kirsten up for their first couple of weeks! They are sadly missed, but luckily Ian was able to visit them on his recent Californian trip. Talking of Fellows, and of work, Ian wants you to know that he was elected a Fellow of the ACM (American Society for Computing Machinery) this year, an honour bestowed on few outside the US and, he thinks, on no-one else in the Southern Hemisphere. And recently, we had the pleasure of hosting other friends from Calgary and Palo Alto, who were attending a conference organised by Ian's department here.

Next June Pam and Ian are off to Calgary for six months, Ian working in the Department there to complete an arrangement that was set up when we left. Anna will be there already. Nikki will stay here with an adult friend and join us when school finishes in November. We are looking forward to spending summer days hiking in the Rockies, and plan to visit the UK too. How will it feel to be back in Calgary?--find out next year, same time, same place.

Now the rain has stopped and the sun is shining. Time to go! Lots of love and Christmas greetings. May peace be with you.

Pam, Ian, Anna, and Nikki