Pigtails, Pirates and gold

“Up the stairs from the gift shop, climb to level three, through the bird hall and there you be” in the world of pirates. A visit to Walk the plank – the Te Tai Tamariki exhibition of childrens’ book illustration at Canterbury Museum will see you up close with the artistry of two well known childrens book illustrators – Pamela Allen and David Elliot.

The original art work and some working drawings for Pamela Allen’s Where’s the gold and David Elliot’s Pigtails the pirate are on display in the gallery next to the Discovery area on the 3rd floor of the Museum. Both works have elements of scariness – Jess sails in search of her Dad through stormy seas and finds him a captive of Pigtails the Pirate who is a very scary looking person – but Jess’s bravery and kindness triumph. The three pirates on a quest for gold are a bit bumbling and easily frightened (their parrot has more gumption) but they venture down a scary tunnel in search of gold. Both authors tell a good tale which would be great to read to and with children.

I particularly enjoyed David Elliot’s work – he is a very fine artist.

Te Tai Tamariki (The tide of children) is an organisation seeking to create a national centre for childrens’ literature to be based in Canterbury.

Cooks and books

I thought the three food writers involved in More Than a Pavlova Paradise more than capable of organising a decent feed and I wasn’t disappointed.

The ladies who lunch were out to do just that but there were a few men in evidence as well at one of the first events of the festival. NZ Book Month co-sponsored – the theme this year is Taste so it was a good fit and the Whittakers peanut slabs were a nice touch.

Kate Fraser, who does such a great job with Zest in The Press, was responsible for the Prawn, Grapefruit and Cucumber Cocktail entree, which she had to admit she had tweaked somewhat from the Highlander salad-dressing and tomato sauce dressed tinned shrimp dish of less than fond memory.

David Veart topped the table’s recall of Prawn Cocktails past with his reminiscences of working in a restaurant in Auckland where the patrons were given plastic corks to sniff and where the mixing of the dressing for the Prawn Cocktails was done by hand, or rather by arm in huge drums.

Richard Till confessed to feeling a bit of a fraud at a book event because of his vow to never add to the plethora of picture cook books, until going around and talking to people in their kitchens proved so much more attractive than real work.

His contribution to the menu, Mutton Backstraps with Scalloped Potatoes, Aoli and Green Vegetables, took him back to the days when as a restaurateur he found a butcher who supplied him with bags of mutton backstraps marked lamb fillet. And you heard it here first – Aoli is the new Highlander salad-dressing.

David Veart began his fascination with New Zealand cook books when he was researching his M.A. thesis on Maori market gardening in Auckland. He now has a collection of 600, arranged by his daughter according to the colour of their covers.

He is often asked if New Zealand has a national cuisine and thinks that if we do it involves the use of new ingredients in unusual combinations, like tamarilloes with meat, the use of offal (a necessity when the good bits of the animal got exported) and baking. According to Veart offal is back, with the nose to tail movement, so I was thankful that he was in charge of dessert, Lemon Delicous Pudding.

Proustian moments (yes, old Marcel was mentioned) abounded as the lunchers remembered cooks and books and all the occasions when people gather together to enjoy food and company, just as we did today.

Francis Spufford meets Bill Nagelkerke

Bill and Francis
Bill and Francis

Philip: A good sized crowd turned up on the second floor of Central Library for a session with English writer Francis Spufford, author of “The child that books built”. A lot of library people there and many library customers we recognised.

Jane: At the end of the session Philip you asked me what I thought – I enjoyed listening to him but I gather you were a bit less enthusiastic?

Philip: Oh did you? What gave you that impression?

Jane: Well you just said that it was a bit tedious – I think that gave it away somehow.

Philip: Did I? Well, I didn’t really mean “tedious”, it was more that the focus was on the whole why and wherefore of reading and I tend to think of reading as a given that just is! I know this sounds utterly pathetic on my part and you can’t fault a speaker for talking about what he was there to talk about!

Jane: I think what I liked about that approach is that I too just read as well, and don’t think much about what I read for or why. He talked about a child’s horizons being generally chosen for them and that books can help you leap across this horizon and have a “miraculous escape”. He had a rather poetic way of expressing himself I thought.

Philip: Yes he did. I liked what he said about children having a life they haven’t chosen themselves whereas reading and all it entails they do choose. When he got on to the subject of age branding it got very interesting and it’s a shame we couldn’t have had a bit more of that. For the record, he’s dead against it and said it was more for the convenience of supermarket style bookselling which aims for easy packaging.

Jane: He was certainly quite philosophical and perhaps that is why you perked up when he got into something more concrete like age branding. I felt that Bill missed an opportunity for some interesting discussions when Francis Spufford tried to engage him by turning the question back on to him as a published writer. Bill didn’t really follow up on this.

Philip: What did you think about what he said about libraries here and in the U.K.?

Jane: Well of course the way to win over the hearts of people at these type of festivals is to praise the library, and he did a good job, especially comparing us most favourably to our English counterparts!

Philip: Very favourably. He said that British libraries in the last ten years or so are pretty crap and our library looked really wonderful. So full marks to him for his perceptiveness. And what are you looking forward to tomorrow?

Jane: I’m really looking forward to Playing God, an hour with Norman Doidge and Glenn Colquhoun. They are both doctors and poets who have kind faces and look like they would have a nice bedside manner.

Philip: I’m really looking forward to the hour with the three crime writers: South Island’s Vanda Symon, Britain’s Mark Billingham and Christchurch’s own crime writer/splattermeister Paul Cleave who is apparently nowhere near as scary as what he writes about.

Fiction is King and Narnia is ‘the essence of book’

Francis Spufford
Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford, non-fiction writer, made no bones about it: “Fiction is king, the true stuff” … to his mind it is writing with wings fully extended. The Child that books built was a good session; he was in conversation with Bill Nagelkerke who had a clear understanding and appreciation for Spufford’s work.

There was an impressive sized crowd to listen, with Margaret Mahy in the front row. Francis spoke about his book The Child that books built and how as a child he lived in ‘a world of unbearable knowledge’ and acknowledged that the ‘constructedness’ of books made that world more shaped and manageable. He was sure that constructedness didn’t rule out a book being ’emotionally alive’.

Spufford’s most loved books were those that started in this world and led into another. He wanted there to be a portal, doors into another world. And to him the pinnacle of this was the journey through a wardrobe, through a pool in an orchard … Narnia. The Chronicles of Narnia “made me feel like I had taken hold of a live wire” he said. These stories represented ‘essence of book’ , the Platonic ideal.

The joy of being a reading child was the lack of limits and he certainly didn’t regret the experience of reading books he only half understood.

The book The Backroom Boys: The secret return of the British Boffin was also discussed, exploring the idea that engineers ‘do their imagining solidly’.

His insight into his book I may be some time: Ice and the English imagination was fascinating (Francis is in Christchurch for the Imagining Antarctica conference as well as the Writers fest). He made a comparison – in human terms our knowledge of Antarctica is as old as jazz, yet in geological terms it is as ancient as Gondwanaland.

Francis says he thinks of Antarctic hero Scott as the perfect figure of a writer. When dying he did his best to ‘create the scene’, as if his demise were held within ‘the capsule of words’. And yet Antarctica is the continent where ‘words run out’.

There couldn’t really be a more apt introduction to four days of thinking about words, imagination and writing.

On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark taking me as her Young Lover

Those with an eye for satire will note the careful seriousness of the title above. The title is from a theatrical powerpoint lecture visiting our fair city as part of the Writers Festival. The show returns after a successful visit during the Cabaret Festival earlier in the winter and if you missed it then, be sure to see it this time around. If, like me, you grow weary of the childish and petty behaviour of politicians (which only seems to get worse as the election looms larger), then you will enjoy this show’s refreshing and hilarious take on politics in New Zealand. You will also be introduced to the strong argument towards our only hope for a glorious future – Helen Clark taking Richard Meros as her young lover. This unique performance is truly hilarious and very highly recommended.

It runs this Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 6pm in the Philip Carter Family Auditorium at the Art Gallery, adults $25.

“… exactly the sort of social and political satire we need to alleviate the inevitable earnestness and nastiness of the looming election campaign”

Ticket sales brisk for writer events

Sales have been brisk for The Press Christchurch Writers Festival according to a volunteer at the stand.
Siegrun Koop said that sales had been brisk, and they were delighted with the location in the library. She has really enjoyed observing the huge cross-section of people and the friendliness of the library staff. Biggest sellers have been Robert Fisk (now at least one session sold out) and Xinran. The sales table will relocate to the Town Hall for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. UBS will also be selling books during the festival.

Pictured: Sebastian Hirsch and Siegrun Koop who have both operated the sales table at the central library over the last few weeks.

The Joys of Firsts

Well, this is a great week of ‘firsts’ for me. First blog post, first Writers’ Festival, first author interview, and of course today – the first day of the Festival itself! It does seem like it’s been on its way for a while, but now the day is finally here. So much to see, so little time! I have to confess that I’ve nerdily written up a schedule, so I can see where I’m rushing madly to next each day.

Today is a little easier, though, as it’s just a couple of events for me. I’m really looking forward to hearing Francis Spufford at 12pm at the central library, and of course at the Town Hall this evening Vanessa Collingridge is talking about the fascinating Captain Cook – I’m right there with you on this one, Robyn! In between I thought I’d try to swing by the Museum and the Art Gallery for their exhibitions on related book-y things: the Pirates Te Tai Tamariki book illustration exhibition at the Museum, and Alan Loney’s Hand-Printed Books at the Gallery.

Guess I’d better try to remember where I put my umbrella …

A kid’s eye view

My first festival foray was to a Schools Read Aloud Programme event. Like Gulliver engulfed by a chaotic hoard of Lilliputians, I braved the collected masses of Avonhead, Hoon Hay and Merrin primary schools to hear Gavin Bishop, Mark Carthew and Jill Marshall talk about their work as children’s writers and illustrators.

Kiwi Moon
Kiwi Moon

Gavin Bishop read Kiwi Moon, his tale of a rare and displaced white Kiwi who seeks shelter with Marama. He also talked about the fascination of fairy tales, myths and legend and the challenge of creating stories that have the epic and enduring qualities of these ancient tales.

Jill Marshall hails from Manchester originally and required the audience to say “ay up” in their best Coronation St-esque accents. They did so, I can report, with great aplomb. Jill writes the Jane Blonde: Sensational Spylet series and talked about how her ideas develop and the process of writing. Jill spent 14 years working in HR and obviously knows how to keep a rowdy audience under control; she even managed to get a rap going. I suspect she may be the first and last rapping author of the festival but let’s put the challenge out there, come on Kate Atkinson and Robert Fisk show us your rap.

Mark Carthew was the audience favourite although his non-stop barrage of knock-knock jokes made me want to “knock-knock” him out. Mark lives and teaches in Melbourne and has written over a hundred books for children. He described himself as a collector of words and cited his parents and teachers as early inspiration for his creative career.

The car load of kids I took back to Hoon Hay school were I have to say a little tepid in their reaction to first contact with the author race but given time and with perhaps more opportunity for interaction it could be the start of something beautiful.