Working By Torchlight

Labour, Literature, & Listening

Month: October, 2012

Motorbikes and Mao: dancing and standing

by Kit Munro

Without really knowing how it happened, I found myself acting as a security guard at the Hampton Downs racetrack for a motorbike event. This job consisted of standing, rooted to the spot, outside a pub near the racetrack. Actually this pub was inside the circle of the track so I had a good view of the action.

I had to tell the bikies (motorbike enthusiasts) that they were not allowed to take their drinks with them when they left the pub, else the racetrack would loose its liquor license. The weather was atrocious, nobody really wanted to drink outside, so over the four hours of the job I only had to warn about twenty people. They were all very good about it. In fact, the rougher and harder they looked the more polite they seemed. Some of the roughest looking folk even commiserated with me over having such an awful job, although the job did not seem that bad to me.

The only downside to the job would have been the boredom, I had no interest in watching motorbikes go round in circles for four hours.

Here I am, feeling uncomfortable in pants, shoes and vest. At least I am a world away…in a tiny village in northern China.

Naturally, I had secreted my ipod and headphones in my uniform. On the ipod, were loaded three new books. I decided to start Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin.

If I had felt sorry for myself (which I didn’t) at having the bad luck to be stuck at a race track in the pouring rain, dealing with bikies,  then the first few chapters of this book would have given me a little perspective.

I had heard about these two major events in 20th century China, The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution, from history at school. However, aside from knowing that they happened, and that they were pretty rough going, that was about all I knew.

To read about it from the perspective of one of the countless millions of poor, who saw the consequences of these events, was difficult, but important.

Mao’s Last Dancer also shows the changing face of China in the mid-20th Century:

Cunsang was lucky to have survived his first week in the Li family. When he was only a few days old, there was an accident. Two of the bigger brothers were playing, stacking up chairs, and the chairs crashed down upon Cunsang’s head. He started having seizures. My mother took him immediately to the hospital where the doctor told her that he most likely had brain damage, but was too young to have any treatment. All my mother could do was take him home.

For several days he did not feed, he cried nonstop and the seizures continued. Finally, in desperation, my mother wrapped him in a little handmade blanket, took him out into the snow, and left him on the Northern Hill, close by our village. She thought somebody with magic power might save him. She cried all the way home.

My father’s mother, Na-na, came by later to check on her new grandson. Na-na was a kind, tiny little woman. When she found the baby missing, she begged my crying mother to tell her where he was. Eventually she did, and Na-na rushed on her crippled, bound feet to the Northern Hill. She found Cunsang and took him home. He was blue all over, nearly frozen to death, and had a severe fever for several days. But then, miraculously, Cunsang stopped crying. The seizures ended and he seemed to recover.

He too grew up with the rest of his brothers in that crowded house, and my mother eventually came to be known as “that lucky woman with seven sons.”

I found my copy of Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin here.If anyone knows of another place this audiobook is available please let me know in the comments below.


Frost fighting with The Help

by Kit Munro

Are audiobook aficionados stereotyped? Maggie Gram thinks so, in her essay “listening to books” she writes:

I thought about starting this essay by insisting that I listen to audio books for work, so that I could not be mistaken for that other kind of person, that kind of person who listens audio books because it brings her some kind of unsophisticated pleasure. I am not, I wanted you to know, your Aunt Paula. My kitchen is not decorated with rooster towel racks and rooster potholders and rooster trim. I am a very serious person.

“[S]ome kind of unsophisticated pleasure”? Oh well. I listen to audiobooks for unsophisticated pleasure. I hope no one minds.

To reduce the level of sophistication of my pleasure even more I have been listening to The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Another black mark against me according to Maggie Gram:

It would be a long time before your Aunt Paula started listening to The Help in her car.

And yes, I have been listening to The Help in my car. Well sort of, I have been listening in my Ute, while frost fighting.

The Help is a bestseller. Set in the civil rights era, it revolves around people who were basically servants. I cringe at my use of the word servant, but I can think of no better word to describe the awful way many of these women were treated.

The Help has received a great deal of criticism. However, for an introduction to Jim Crow, Civil Rights and the deep south in the 1960s,  it is adequate enough. Most importantly though, The Help is an easy read. That is what is required for an audiobook that is going to be listened to while frost fighting.

Frost fighting is probably one of the physically easiest jobs on the farm, but it is also one of the most stressful. In the wee small hours of the night the entire grape harvest hangs in the balance. If the shoots  on the vines freeze, they die. Taking with them the tiny specks that will become bunches of grapes. The months and months of pruning and wrapping (see here and here) could be wasted, the entire years income could be gone in a couple of hours.

It has happened before.

To fight the frost, on MoonRaker vineyard we have two pretty impressive machines called, rather grandly, wind machines. One in each of the two blocks. They sort of look like wind turbines, but smaller and green. Rather than harvesting wind, they make it.

This is the wind machine in the front paddock roaring in to life, thirty minutes or so before the sunlight hits the grapes. It was turned on late because the temperature only plummeted just before dawn. This wind machine is a half sized one, well the blade is full size but its “trunk” is half the height of a normal wind machine. The blade seems very close when it is turned on.  It moves very, very fast.

Sometimes the temperature approaches freezing much earlier in the night. Occasionally as early as 10pm. When that happens these frost machines go all night and we stay up all night with them. Waiting and hoping that nothing will go wrong and that the wind machines will generate enough wind to raise the temperature just enough to stop the frost settling on the vines. If the wind machines are not enough to raise the temperature then the frost pots are lit.

These turn the wind machine from a fan in to a giant heater. Neither turning the wind machine on, nor lighting the frost pots are hard, or time consuming jobs. Basically all that there is to do is wait while everything hangs in the balance. And so, like your Aunt Paula, I listen to an audiobook. This unsophisticated pleasure makes a very long night bearable.

And then, after working all day then fighting frost all night, words cannot describe the pleasure the sight of the first sunlight hitting the hill tops  brings.

I found my copy of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help here. If anyone knows of another place this audiobook is available please let me know in the comments below.

A pressing job and listening to a Homage to Catalonia

by Kit Munro

After the sheep have been shorn and the wool sorted in to its various grades and stacked in these bins it needs to be pressed in to bales. It cannot be transported by each individual fleece. Instead we compact 100 fleeces or so in to a single bale.

While shearing, the pressing is not a presssing (sorry) job. The shed can hold enough wool without it having to be compacted too regularly. So the job is put off. And put off. And put off. Occasionally we cannot put the pressing off until tomorrow anymore and it needs to be done.

Today was one of those days.

Most woolsheds have hydraulic presses for compacting the wool. Some have mechanical ones that require the force to be provided with levers. The press here is one of those. Of all the woolsheds I have worked in this press is the oldest. It is also the funnest. It is like a weights machine, but with a point.

First the wool is tramped into the press, using the legs.

Then the two sides of the press are joined together.

Then the wool is compacted from one side of the press to the other. Using nothing more advanced than two levers.

Leaving the wool from two boxes in one…

There is a lot of force on those levers, despite the fact that the only thing being squeezed out of the wool is air. The woolpress might be over 100 years old but it does the job.

Yesterday and today the book I listened to was Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. This is a journalistic type novel and details Orwell’s experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War. It is a bit confusing with all the different factions, but then I suppose that is the nature of civil wars.

There was one part of the book that felt particularly relevant to what I was doing. Here Orwell describes a nature of the Spanish psyche that he found both infuriating and endearing:

Every foreigner who served in the militia spent his first few weeks in learning to love the Spaniards and in being exasperated by certain of their characteristics…… The one Spanish word that no foreigner can avoid learning is Manana – ‘tomorrow’ (literally, ‘the morning’). Whenever it is conceivably possible, the business of today is put off until manana. This is so notorious that even the Spaniards themselves joke about it. In Spain nothing, from a meal to a battle, ever happens at the appointed time As a general rule things happen late, but just occasionally – just so that you shan’t even be able to depend on their happening late – they happen too early. A train which is due to leave at eight will normally leave between nine and ten, but perhaps once a week, thanks to some whim of the engine-driver it leaves at half past seven.

I think I should like to go to Spain one day.

Using that summer job to improve your grades

by Kit Munro

If you are studying at a University and you have to work over the summer holidays there is a way –if you are lucky enough to have the right job– to turn those Summer months spent doing a boring job into A+ after A+.

A comment on this blog the other day provided me with the idea:

I spent most of my uni break working in a vineyard…never have I tired of an iPod playlist so quickly. Working outside was such a lovely change though and it really does help to realise how lucky you are to work in such a beautiful place:)


Let us assume that Anon is studying English. Lets also assume that she is studying at the University of Otago, one of only three Universities on the Island I live on. Anon, because of her Scottish heritage and a weakness for CSI, Sherlock, and Hercule Poirot has decided to study, ENGL260 Special Topic: Tartan Noir: Scottish Crime Fiction. Lets finally assume that Anon has decided to work in a vineyard again.

Anon could listen to her ipod playlist again, but I think there is a better idea.

Here is the reading list for Scottish Crime Fiction

Walter Scott, ‘The Two Drovers’
Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped
Arthur Conan Doyle, selected Sherlock Holmes stories
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps
Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat
Ian Rankin, Black & Blue
Christopher Brookmyre, One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night
Iain Banks, Complicity
Val McDermid, The Wire in the Blood

Why doesn’t Anon spend her summer in the vineyard reading/listening to these books? Rather than listening to Taylor Swift, Kitty Daisy and Lewis, The Decemberists, or The Black Keys all day she could read these books.

Below is the list with the audiobooks I was able to find on and elsewhere and how many hours these books are.

Walter Scott,The Two Drovers’ (couldn’t find)
Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is available here. 3 hours
Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped is available here. 7.5 hours
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles is available here. 6 hours. The complete Sherlock Holmes is also available here. 71 hours
John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps is available here. 4 hours
Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat is available here. 2.5 hours
Ian Rankin, Black & Blue is available here. 13 hours (estimate)
Christopher Brookmyre, One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night (couldn’t find)
Iain Banks, Complicity (couldn’t find)
Val McDermid, The Wire in the Blood is available here. 15 hours

[NB as usual if anyone knows anywhere else these books are available as audiobooks please let me know in the comments below]

If Anon was to spend her time listening to these books and keeping in mind that for Engl 260:

Topics of discussion will include: the character of the detective hero; the role of crime fiction in the construction of national identity; and writing the city in Scottish crime fiction.

It is likely that she will be the most prepared person in the class, after the lecturer. Especially if she listened to these books more than once. Say it takes roughly 120 hours to listen to the 8 texts that are available, if she also intends to read every Sherlock Holmes story, Then, if Anon does 40 hour weeks in the vineyard for three months she could listen to the lot four times.

Going into this course with an intimate knowledge of all these texts on the reading list may not guarantee an A+ but it would, I think, make an A+ a lot more likely.

Do uni students often do this? Get a job over the break that would be compatible with audiobook listening and prepare for their next semesters study by doing all the reading before the course starts? Because if the students are passionate about their studies this is exactly what they should do.

In short, I think this sort of thing

Plus this

Containing these

May equal this


The shearing deadline was met, sort of. And the hairy fifth…

by Kit Munro

The hairy fifth to enslave the State,

To enslave the state, though against his will,

Shall be that idiot whom all despised.

 I, Claudius Robert Graves

Another days shearing. I left the South African theme for a while. Today I have been working/listening my way through I, Claudius by Robert Graves. I, Claudius is a history of the reign of several Caesars –including Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula– of the Roman Empire. It is told from the perspective of Claudius, an accomplished historian, so Graves wrote it as though the Roman historian was writing it.

Claudius did not have much going for him:

I was a very sickly child –‘a very battleground of diseases,’ the doctors said –and perhaps only lived because the diseases could not agree as to which should have the honour of carrying me off.

Poor old Claudius was ridiculed by those around him and probably the best advice he was ever given would not have improved this:

…exagerate your limp, stammer deliberately, sham sickness frequently, let your wits wander, jerk your head, and twitch with your hands on all public or semi-public occasions…

Poor old Claudius did not have much going for him, but he did have a little…

I finished shearing the main mob of ewes today while listening to I, Claudius. The deadline was the 10th of October. This deadline was for finishing the shearing, not the audiobook.

So en masse the sheep  looked like this before I started…

Now, after I have finished, they look like this…

Oh and the reason the deadline was the 10th of October?

That is when these Ewes start lambing:

Although nobody told this guy. This little tacker was born a day early.

The pink stripe was to mark him out. I suspected his mum had abandoned him. When I came back later he was all alone, no sheep near him. Nobody loves him. He may end up as a pet, or maybe another sheep can be tricked in to adopting him.

From humble beginnings eh?

I found my copy of Robert Grave’s I, Claudius here. If anyone knows of another place this audiobook is available please let me know in the comments below. [update I, Claudius is also available at the Book depository: Thanks Indiedyer]

Cry, the Beloved Country, and piles of wool

by Kit Munro

Another day shearing sheep. I only had 74 sheep to shear today so it was a short day. Finished nice and early. The wool is beginning to pile up in the woolshed. The wool off several hundred sheep makes quite a pile.

Today, in keeping with my South African theme I listened to Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. This is the most moving book I have yet read. I had to be a bit careful, it wouldn’t do for a sheep shearer to be seen crying…

Maybe it was because I could relate to the main character, Kumalo. Being a chap from the country going to the big city he  was very bewildered, even overwhelmed. Any person from a rural background going to a big city for the first time, alone, can appreciate this:

One of the men points for him. “Johannesburg, umfundisi”.

He is silent, his head aches, he is afraid. There is this railway station to come, this great place with all its tunnels under the ground. The train stops, under a great roof, and there are thousands of people…He goes carefully that he may not bump anybody, holding tightly to his bag…The noise is immense. Cars and buses one behind the other, more than he has ever imagined.

Perhaps it is that despite the suffering endured by many characters in this book, the tone of the story is still hopeful. A pity that the story was written and set just before Apartheid got in to swing. Or maybe it is not a pity at all.

I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating

Most of all, I think though, was that this book provides the most eloquent justification for the role of the defence lawyer. An issue I often find myself facing.

That was what I read, this is what I achieved while reading…. A few hundred kilos of wool.



The woolen jersey your grandmother knitted you is NOT made out of this wool. Merino wool is more likely to go into this sort of stuff. Some of the old owners of the wool, oblivious:

This Book is number #173 on Flynn’s list.I found my copy of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country here. If anyone knows of another place this audiobook is available please let me know in the comments below.

Is this the most unusual job ever done while listening to an audiobook?

by Kit Munro

Today I have been shearing sheep while reading/listening to The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay.

Readers of this blog may have picked up a bit of a pattern  to the books I choose to read; I am a fan of books that entertain me while informing me. This is probably Jim Flynn’s influence I suspect.

Anyway, the point being, I know little of South Africa and I suddenly decided that I wanted to learn. My knowledge is pretty much limited to knowing South Africa  had a thing called Apartheid. It is hard to be a New Zealander and not have heard of Apartheid because of this. I also know that South Africa has the best blade shearers in the world. So not much to go on really. The Power of One, being a popular, easy to read novel seemed like the perfect place to start. Even if it is a little out of date.

The Power of One follows Peekay as he grows up in South Africa in the 1940s. Courtenay states that the book had an autobiographical foundation but that it ultimately went much beyond that. With Peekay as my guide, while shearing, I was introduced to the tension between Afrikaners and English South Africans, the endemic racism, and the beauty of South Africa. I also encountered South African plants, prisons and boarding schools. All this with a story that at times made me almost forget I was shearing.

Peekay’s thoughts on seeing a prison for the first time made me think of a prison visit I once went on. The prison had just been built and nobody had “moved in” yet. The buildings all looked very nice. The place was empty, clean and brand new (some of the accommodation even had underfloor heating) but everything felt wrong. Maybe it is because I had been told what the place was, Courteney offers a different explanation:

I had never seen a prison, nor had I even imagined one, but there is a racial memory in man that instinctively knows of these things. The architecture of misery has an unmistakable look and feel about it.

The sheep I have been shearing today are a breed called Merino. They are grown for wool, not meat.

Come to think of it, there is quite a good arrangement we have with them on this farm. We keep them alive until they finally succumb to old age. In return they let us shear their wool off them once a year. We let them live to their appointed age, many last 12 or 13 years, and they tolerate spending 4 minutes or so a year having their wool removed.

Two sheep waiting to be shorn

Two sheep waiting to be shorn, except now one has to wait another 365 days.

This wool then is a nice product, in that nothing is harmed in the getting of it. Harvesting wool may not be the most unusual thing ever done while listening to an audiobook. In fact I hope not! I would be pleased to hear otherwise…


I found my copy of Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One here. If anyone knows of another place this audiobook is available please let me know in the comments below.

Mister Pip, a defence of audiobooks and two thirds of a vineyard

by Kit Munro

…you cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch fire and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.

Lloyd Jones Mister Pip

There are many folk who are scathing about audiobooks; for example, this person. There are also folk who go out of their way to defend audiobooks; for example, this chap.

I will not add my voice to the cacophony of this argument. Fortunately though, I have stumbled across a book, in audiobook format of course, that provides a more effective defence of accessing literature through listening, than I ever could.

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones is set in the 1990s on Bougainville Island during the civil war. Mr Watts, the only white man left, takes over teaching the local children when the school closes. He says he has no teaching experience. So, aside from relying on local tutors, who take the students for a wide range of subjects (my favourite was the lesson on the colour blue), he reads to them. Mister Watts reads the children Great Expectations by Mister Dickens.

I doubt that Mister Jones intended Mister Pip to be a defence of audiobooks as a means of “reading” literature. Yet that is one of the great things about the writer-reader relationship. What he intended his words to mean and what I interpret them as, are both determined by the different intellectual baggage we carry. When he writes “trees” he may see Oaks or Manuka, when I read “trees” I might see Palms (in fact I see Pines and Weeping Willows).

I will not recount what I think are the arguments for audiobooks that are found in Mister Pip. To do so I think would give too much of the story away. What I will do is to challenge anybody to read or listen to Mister Pip and still believe that hearing a novel rather than reading it is a waste of time, or even inferior to reading it.

I began this post with a quote from Mister Pip. A quote that, I think, conveys how an audiobook is able to make the vines, sheep, or firewood in front of me melt away. Occasionally while listening, I will give a start to see I have reached the end of a vineyard row.

Today, while reading  Mister Pip we hit the 2/3 mark for the wrapping in the vineyard. Once we have wrapped another 5000 vines the job will be done, or very nearly done.

The problem is that there is another deadline. The sheep shearing must be done. By the 10th of October. Wrapping the vines has to stop while the shearing is done. On the plus side, while I am not a huge fan of vineyard work, I love shearing.

The woolshed waiting for sheep, wool, shearer and rousie.