Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2009


CoverThe Slap by Christos Tsiolkas has been embroiled in some smokin’ hot controversy since it’s July inclusion in the 2010 Man Booker long list.

The titular slap, delivered by a nasty man called Harry and received by a nasty child called Hugo during a suburban barbecue in Melbourne, is at the heart of this gritty novel exploring the morality and values of modern, multicultural Australia.

But what has got the British literati so stirred up? UK writer India Knight hated it, calling it misogynistic and saying it had “no joy, no love, no hope, no beauty…just hideous people beating each other up, either physically or emotionally.” Others such as Observer books editor William Skidelsky credits it with “zeitgeist-capturing qualities” adding it exposes “the shallowness of contemporary liberalism”. Oooh, fancy that!

Our reviewer Jane overcame initial reluctance and loved it, plus ….

  • Intrepid library editor Richard Liddicoat interviewed Christos during the first wave of Slap strife, and got Christos’s take on middle-class Australia, writing and libraries. And…
  • Christchurch City Libraries was also on the spot when Christos scooped the SE Asian and Pacific categories and best overall winner at the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ prize!

To find out what all the beef is about read The slap.

Christos Tsiolkas and our editor Richard

My colleague’s recent post about Don McGlashan  reminded me that Mr McGlashan truly is a living legend (Dick Hubbard awarded him the title so it must be true). I didn’t get to interview him at  Auckland Writers and Readers, which was just as well when the temptation to bow down and intone “I am not worthy” in the manner of Wayne and Garth when they meet Aerosmith was almost overwhelming, and that was from the third row of the audience .

Such enthusiasm in a mild-mannered middle aged librarian caused some amusement to colleagues but I think it’s fully justified in this case.  It seems admirable and increasingly rare to just keep on making good work, year after year, to say that “the work itself is its own reward” and to be almost surprised that when you go on tour in the middle of a recession you still sell out around the country. 

Fiona Farrell talks about ‘poetry moments’  – those times when when you’re doing something else and suddenly a few lines of poetry come back to you. McGlashan did say at the songwriters’ session in Auckland that songs aren’t just poetry but I have poetry moments all the time with his songs, probably because they are about here; Highway One, not Route 66, and because for a long time it seemed nobody sang about here in a voice that recognisably belonged to someone from here. All the singers in New Zealand bands put on American or British accents.

Mount Eden brings to mind “Dominion Road is bending, under its own weight, shining like a strip cut from a sheet metal plate ’cause it’s just been raining” and crossing the Auckland Harbour Bridge it’s “lights across the water, a bracelet in these sky” In Wellington it’s “she loves Wellington, she was born there, she grew up out in the Hutt Valley”

At home in Christchurch it’s  “I sell sporting goods I’ve got a shop not far from Cathedral Square” and when in Aramoana the haunting “And oh yes..one of those AK47s for some collector down the line”. I’ve even had one on the Tube in London “talking loud in a Kiwi accent”. How could you possibly pick a favourite? (although mine is Andy)

I make it a rule to see Don McGlashan and whatever great band he’s assembled at least once a year. This year it will be in Wellington at the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, and I can’t wait.

Don McGlashan, who played North Hagley Park on Saturday, is one of New Zealand’s foremost songwriters. His name appears four times in the APRA Top 100 songs of all time – with Blam, Blam, Blam, The Front Lawn and The Muttonbirds.

This eight-minute interview was  an opportunist one – after his songwriting session at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival he generously agreed to answer a few questions.

Fascinating to talk to, McGlashan shared his love of “Dickens with cannons”, which Roger Hall put him on to; his belief that he is on the unpopular edges of a popular field; details of his 1930s cowboy guitar which he bought in Christchurch; and some of the  literary-style techniques that he uses in his songwriting.

The book that McGlashan talks about in the first part of the interview is Bounty, by Caroline Alexander.

Did you see Don at Sounday? And what’s your favourite song of his? Or is his style too much for you?

Book signing

Book signing

76 years old and on his 27th book, Richard Holloway nicknamed the “Barmy Bish” has been for me a minor revelation. I can’t say I had massively high hopes, at The Auckland Writer and Readers Festival, of super enjoying an hour listening to an ex-Bishop burble on but hey, as always I was wrong. No burbling, not much religion, tears, laughter and a full-house.

Holloway resigned from the postitons of Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus Of the Scottish Episcopal Church in 2oo0 and now terms himself  an “after-religionist”, a label he prefers over the more loaded title agnostic. He still values the role of religion but is if anything even keener now without his mitre, he threw it in a river, to ponder the big existential questions and explore the nature of humanity both good and bad.

Holloway’s latest title Between the Monster and the Saint: Reflections on the human condition looks to explain and rate the differing responses to the “big questions” and he sees four major categories: those with strong religious conviction, those with a weak religious conviction, after-religionists like Holloway himself and those that just don’t get religion at all or are even hostile towards it. Of course Mr Richard Dawkins does in Holloway’s view fall into the latter category adding that “Dawkins needs to go back on the prozac and chill out a bit”. Holloway does see a role for atheism in combatting false idolatry; likewise he strongly emphasised the importance of writers, artists and general creativity in ridiculing authority figures to expose and temper corruption.

On forgiveness

On forgiveness

He talked briefly about his  energetic little dog Daisy and his sadness that the Christian church denies animals souls. He suggested that heaven might in fact be full of  homicidal turkeys, chickens, cows and pigs all looking for revenge, having suffered to make us fat.  Equally unappealing to him is the stereotype heaven with endless masses and choirs of angels.

The overriding message Holloway seeks to share, and he became quite emotional at this point, is the need for pity and the role of imagination in engendering empathy. Encounter with others is an essential part of understanding and with understanding comes a true humanity. At the end of the session  Aotea Centre volunteers had to almost forcibily eject several members of the audience, myself included, who had started impromtu conversations with complete strangers raving about the barmy bish, his courage and kindness.

I couldn’t sleep last night.  I had stayed up desperately wanting to finish The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, and am now paying the price.  It is hard to believe that a book that had so appalled me in the first few chapters had managed to pull me into its grasp.  I lay awake thinking about the characters, wondering what would happen to them all, and marvelling at the way I had become engrossed in their lives.

Set in Melbourne the book opens with a barbecue for family and friends.  People and food arrive, along with personal baggage, fraught relationships and a healthy mix of race and age.  Things are going surprisingly well however, until one particularly unpleasant child, Hugo, gets slapped by Harry, and equally unpleasant adult, for attempting to bash his son over the head with a cricket bat. All hell breaks loose, and how eight  individuals present present at the barbecue react to this event becomes the backbone of the book. 

You certainly could not describe this book as pleasant, and I just wish that I had come up with the description of  a “Satanic version of Neighbours” as this  blog described it.  The first few chapters are indeed hard going,  but having read the posts from the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival about Tsiolkas, and the fact that he won a Commonwealth Writers prize encouraged me to persevere, and I’m pleased that I did. 

Tsiolkas has a voice that is very multicultural Australia, and what struck me was the racism from every quarter.  Greeks are described as “wogs”, Aborigines are feared by everyone, all Arabs are potential terrorists, the Greeks have no time for the “Australeza”, and the wife of one of the Greek sons is described as “that Indian woman”.   So much for the great Multicultural melting pot.

A surprising bonus in the book for me was that Tsiolkas  has a remarkable ability to get inside the teenage head, and I thought the chapters of two teenagers, Connie and Richie were by the far the best in the book.

The Slap probably isn’t  for everyone, (and it nearly wasn’t for me). Definitely worth a read, it’s big, bold, brassy and unashamedly Australian.  I loved it.

I have to admit that it was a conscious decision to make the final session that I attended at the recent Auckland Writers and Readers Festival what I hoped would be light relief. After the density of discussion in other parts of the programme I did hope that I might be able to turn my tired brain off for a bit in Songwriting with Don McGlashan and Jason Kerrison but that just didn’t turn out to be the case.

Maybe I thought rock stars would be a little less articulate, intelligent or engaging than other speakers had been. What a stupid thing to think that was. Don McGlashan is no dummy. He’s one of the sharpest songwriters that this country has produced and though Kerrison’s back-catalogue isn’t as extensive it turned out he is a pretty sharp tack too.

My colleague Robyn also attended this session but was so overwhelmed by the proximity of the legendary Mr McGlashan that she claims not be able to say anything intelligent about it (to hear what she did think you could listen to our final festival wrap-up).

The chair for the session was another legend of Kiwi music Mike Chunn who, I was informed, chaired the same session at 2008’s festival. Obligatory introductions were made which McGlashan didn’t really need, pretty much everyone being familiar with his Blam, Blam, Blam/The Front Lawn/Muttonbirds whakapapa. Although I knew that Opshop frontman Kerrison was from Christchurch it was news to me that he was formerly a “Bede-ian” and that he was in Christchurch bands GST (Goldfish Supermarket Trolley) and Gorilla Biscuit.

Quite a lot was discussed over the course of the next hour with each songwriter describing the different processes involved in getting these songs, this “cerebral vomit from the self-conscious” out into the world. Both musicians sang one song using a guitar Don purchased in a Christchurch music shop which had originally come from a 1930s Montgomery Ward catalogue. This spare, minimal accompaniment really showcased their great voices and strong songwriting ability. I for one was rapt, leaning forward with chin on hands during both performances.

McGlashan’s choice of song was “While you sleep” and explained that when he wrote it he had been listening to the song “Maggie May” a lot and liked the idea of someone looking back on a wonderful time in their lives, of “shining a light on a part of your life to understand it better” and that he wanted to write a song that had the word “flat” in it.

Kerrison discussed the genesis of his song “One day” which has featured in NZ Post ads, explaining that he wrote it immediately after having a fight with his wife and that writing the song was a way of “getting over myself”. He also said that sometimes performing personal songs “takes you back into that room” making you relive that moment which is something that you don’t always want to do.

Kerrison also repeated an idea that had come up amongst the authors at the opening night talk, that of the tyranny of a blank page. It reminded me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comment from opening night that all the prizes in the world don’t make a bit of different when you’re sitting there at a keyboard trying to write (or words to that effect). It doesn’t matter what kind of writer or creator you are, it seems that that blank slate, page, or computer screen is a thing universally feared.

Of course even if you manage to write a song, not every one is a success. Kerrison admitted that he had “boxes and boxes of duds”, McGlashan reflected that rather than hoarding his dud songs that he “foists them on the paying public” which is rather more self-deprecating than was strictly necessary. The guy’s a genius songwriter, after all.

And to sum up I think I will leave you with an interesting quote from the very talented Mr McGlashan on the role of songwriters. Take it away, Don…

Your job is to be a witness to the world. We are among the people who will stand up and say “this is what the world looks like from where I am”, and that is a good enough reason to do it.

Make no mistake that this was not a session for the faint-hearted, with at times dense discussion of economic and geopolitical futures. That didn’t mean a small crowd though – the theatre was packed – nor did it mean a humourless ninety minutes. Luckily for me, that Rod Oram was sitting outside beforehand, and was keen to join me afterwards for a chat. I spoke with the affable and astute Oram about his thoughts on the “wonderfully challenging” session, the merits of charging for water, the importance of books in the digital age, and more, in this ten-minute interview. Thanks Rod!

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