Life has gone full circle for former apiarist Bob Sharp. A resident of the area his whole life, he grew-up on a property at the Matakana end of Sharp Road and now lives, in his retirement, at the Sandspit end. In between the shift, he was a leading commercial beekeeper. But, as Jannette Thompson discovered, the boy who loved writing essays at school hasn’t lost his imagination despite now being almost completely blind ….
I tell people my life has been so boring, I had to write fiction. Although I’ve always been a great reader and enjoyed writing at school, it’s only been in my retirement that I’ve had the time to devote any effort to it. My first published story was on the children’s page of the NZ Women’s Weekly when I was nine years old. More recently, Radio NZ accepted my short story The Last Waltz, which was read on air last month. It’s set in rural NZ in the 1950s and is about two cousins – one from the city and one from the country. Radio NZ has quite specific requirements. Stories have to grab the listener’s interest immediately because otherwise they might switch stations, it’s not to contain too many adverbs, they don’t like the story to be told in the first person and the length has to be around 1800 to 1900. It was really at the encouragement of a local writing group that I belong to that I even submitted my story. I didn’t have any expectations so was over the moon to receive a contract in the mail. My current project is a collection of five short stories. I plan to sell the book on Amazon, which is a lot cheaper than conventional publishing. Once you get a cover designed – mine was organised by email with a woman in Eastern Europe – then you open an Amazon account that costs US$2.99 and you’re in business. You put your own price on your book and, as long as it’s over $3, Amazon only takes a 30 per cent cut on each sale. In traditional publishing, I’m told the author is lucky to get 10 per cent of the cover price. If a book becomes popular, then you can increase the price. I’m not too worried about making a fortune – I’ll be happy if I make coffee money. My book’s called A Twist of Justice and each story, although separate, is set on the same imaginary street in Auckland. The whole process of getting published online is very exciting.
My only formula for thinking of an idea is that I don’t have a formula. If I get stuck, I just try to stop labouring the thought and then, usually, something occurs to me. If I get an idea though, I won’t pursue it unless I have an ending with a good twist. Perhaps that’s why I love Roald Dahl’s books. I also like historical, crime and adventure stories, and travel books by Bill Bryson. These days I rely on the Blind Foundation’s library of talking books. They have 7000 titles and each disk they send has 40 hours of listening on it. I’m never quite sure what I’m going to receive, as it’s a random selection based on my favourite authors and genre preferences. It really is a very good service.
I lost my sight six years ago to giant cell arteritis (GCA), which affects the large artery at the back of the neck. There were symptoms – night sweats and an aching jaw – but I thought they were just signs of old age. But once the artery starts to close, you only have about 48 hours to arrest the damage or lose your sight completely. In my case, I was driving home after a day of picking grapes in a local vineyard. It came on quite suddenly and I nearly drove off the road. The next day, my wife Mina took me to the Red Beach surgery and they referred me immediately to Greenlane Hospital. As a result, they were able to save 20 per cent of my sight in one eye. I can make out people and objects but it’s like looking through a blurry mist. I’m only able to write using a closed circuit magnifier, which I lease from the Blind Foundation. It looks like a computer screen or small TV and to use it, I write on an ordinary lined piece of paper beneath the screen. The image is thrown up on the screen and I can adjust the magnification and change the colours. I find yellow type on a black background works best for me. The magnifier allows me a degree of flexibility because I can read my own mail and I can still write my own cheques. Of course, it means all my stories are handwritten so I’m very grateful to Steph Mellors who types and edits them for me. I find that when I sit down to write, I become oblivious of what’s happening around me and time just flies. I love it.
The original Sharp farm, at the Matakana Road end of Sharp Road, was settled by my grandparents Bill and Annie, who were both second generation New Zealanders. They had three daughters and six sons including my Dad, Brownie Sharp who married Elsie Webster. Dad worked with his older brother Cyril at the Sharp quarry in Kawakawa for a few years but then set himself up as a beekeeper, close to where the Dragonfly Café is now located on Matakana Road. He named his business Matoma Apiaries after the local rugby team. When I left school, I joined the business. Together with the Waitemata Honey Company, which was based on the East Coast Bays, Matoma pioneered the export of comb honey. At that time, all honey had to be marketed through the Honey Marketing Authority but this didn’t include comb honey. The authority opposed our export plan and in the end, the matter was settled by Parliament. I guess you could say Waitemata and Matoma exploited a loophole. In time, we had around 500 hives and were exporting around 1000 dozen comb honey squares a year to Europe.
Dad mainly had manuka honey in the early days, but unlike now, you couldn’t give it away. No-one wanted it. He used to send 60lb kerosene cans full of it away and he’d barely get back the price of the cartage. Years later, we targeted clover for the comb honey, which particularly appealed to the Japanese. By the time manuka honey became popular and pricey, other beekeepers had already locked up all the manuka blocks. I worked with bees all my life and loved the seasonal nature of the work. In the summer we’d be outside every fine day working the hives and later collecting the honey, and in the winter when it was cold, we’d concentrate on the shed work. The varroa mite, which attacks honey bees, arrived in NZ just before I retired, so I was pretty lucky as it didn’t really have an impact on my business.
Mum and dad had four kids and my sister Pat and I were twins. Our arrival caused a small sensation and was featured on the front page of the NZ Herald on May 16, 1939. The photo showed Mum lying in the bed at Warkworth Cottage Hospital holding Pat and I, and we looked like a couple of wizened up little walnuts. Our claim to fame was that we were the first babies born under Prime Minister Michael Savage’s Social Security Maternity Benefits Scheme (the first family benefit). I suppose you’d say I had a pretty typical upbringing. The family has always been keen on tennis and Matakana had a strong club when we were young. My brother Des was one of the top players in Rodney and started the Warkworth Veterans Club. I’ve lived my whole life in Matakana and I still think it’s a great place. I haven’t got a bucket list because I’m quite happy just plodding along. Perhaps I’m just too lazy! But I enjoy what I do – my writing, gardening and drinking coffee. I’ve never expected too much from life. What the years have taught me is to be a little more tolerant and not quite so opinionated.