Sardonic Sardinians live long lives

Richard and Ben Hills
Richard and Ben Hills

It seems the secret to living a long and enjoyable life could be to follow the lifestyles of some very staunch Sardinians – eat a modest diet with organic locally grown veg and the occasional blowout on boiled mutton and roast pork, drink a couple of glasses daily of  the Sardinian red wine Cannonau (15 to 16%  proof and unfiltered) and spend your life scaling the barren hills looking after sheep and goats. Perhaps it might be a good idea to stay away from some Sardinian cheeses – the illegal casu marzu “rotten cheese” – read Ben Hills book to find out about that – I couldn’t bring myself to write what he described to us in his session.

Ben Hill’s very entertaining talk today – centered around his latest book The Island of the Ancients showed us what a remarkable group of Sardinian centenarians can tell us about living long and well.  (The book has some wonderful photographs ). There are probably many factors in their extreme long life including diet, exercise (plenty of hard work from a very early age), genetic factors and a society where old people are a valued part of their extended family and community. A Sardinian doctor said “When an old person dies it is as if a library has burned down”

Sardinia emerged from the talk as a beautiful place to visit – from the oligarchs playground of the Costa Smeralda to the ancient hinterland. The island is a fascinating mix of ancient cultures with many languages other than Italian spoken including an ancient form of Catalan from Spain.

Ben Hills’ book looks to be a great read and certainly provoked some interested questioning at the end of the session. Another of his books, a very controversial biography of Japanese Princess Masako was also mentioned in questioning and he described how it was initially banned in Japan. I was also fascinated to read of his book on the asbestos mining controversy in Australia. Called Blue Murder it describes the battle for justice by victims of CSR’s Wittenoom asbestos mine in Western Australia.

A final hat tip from Ben – the 1970’s film Padre Padrone gives a good idea of the harsh lives his centenarians would have lived in their childhood and youth. Alice in Videoland have it for hire.

He was an entertaining talker and his other festival session with Joe Bennett and Lloyd Spencer Davis Guilt-free travel could be worth a punt.

Friday Festival wrap-up (or the evil cheese)

The second of our festival wrap-ups features five of the library team taking part in the festival: Joyce, Bronwyn, Donna, Jane and Richard.

Be warned that this audio post does contain a description of cheese that may make your stomach turn! Why not join our conversation ? Post your feedback or post a comment, we’d love to hear from you.

The Big Picture: an hour with Hamish Keith

The big picture
The big picture

A pretty full house for one of our most famous commentators, here talking about his book and the television series, The big picture. Hamish K. is a legendary figure in New Zealand and the talk has been that he’s “difficult” and doesn’t suffer fools gladly or at all. This means that I wondered if we’d be getting a splenetic type who would make any foolish questioner quake in their sneakers.

It was not the case as the speaker was affability personified and the audience was eating heartily out of his hand. Most of the session, chaired by Press arts reviewer Jamie Hanton, was centred on the book and series and H.K. had a major regret that not everything was included. He likened the process to having a large container ship and having to turn it around and told a funny story about a significant artist who was left out (to her great displeasure) but has now got into the third printing (but not, of course, into the series which was done and dusted).

Hamish Keiths books
Hamish Keith's books

He has a thing about gatekeeping and Wellington and gets really annoyed that “all the gatekeeping of our culture takes part in Lambton Quay” and imagine if the cultural identity of Australia was all defined by Canberra or Canada by Ottawa. Wrong about the latter, said a man in the audience as Ottawa apparently has Canada sewn up! H.K. wished he hadn’t heard that and was quite irritated by Wellington having in effect two art galleries and two orchestras. He did say that his wife has said he mustn’t bang on about Wellington so much but it was vastly entertaining to hear (and hard to disagree with!)

Galleries and the iPod viewing whereby patrons wander the gallery being talked at about the collection is another irksome thing and he talked about the “unbroken conversation” which allowed patrons to look, understand and reflect on what they saw.  Some of this session was quite digressive but aren’t digressions often a lot more interesting than hugely structured sessions and this whole hour was most entertaining and illuminating and nobody was scared to ask a question and went away happy.

Killing time (between lunch and the next session)

Philip and Joyce have just emerged from the session with Paul Cleave, Mark Billingham and Vanda Symon. They look in fine spirits so I thought I would take the time to ask them a few questions.

So, hello there. You two are back together again for yet another festival , how does this compare with Auckland?
Philip: much much smaller and not quite the oomph of Auckland
Joyce: but it’s early days….

So how did you find your first session?
Philip: Quite interesting. A constrained quality, partly because it was recorded for the radio.
Joyce: A lot of people look like they are popping in for their lunch break, which makes it feel slightly disjointed.
Philip: An extremely small turnout, especially seeing as I turned up to the wrong session and couldn’t find Joyce, but when they started saying something about poets I got out of there very very quickly.
Joyce: There was the strident lady in the audience booming out in a sergeant major voice…
Philip: Sort of like she was in the deli of the Merivale supermarket
Joyce: “The mike isn’t on” there’s always one.

Who stood out for you?
Joyce: if I was a crime writer I’d refuse to share the stage with Mark Billingham. He has a rugged charm, he’s very funny, and a practiced speaker.
Philip: He can work the audience well. He refered to a magazine article where women between the ages of 20 and 50 said they prefer crime fiction to food, shopping and sex. He also said …

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Playing the Game – Creating Worlds: the Knox sisters in conversation


Bronwyn reports: From the very start of today’s meeting it is clear that Elizabeth and Sara Knox have a close relationship.  When I arrive, they are giggling on the couch, and their warmth and openness is apparent all the way through (they let me take their photo! and they say nice things about libraries!). 

The session itself is a bit more formally structured, as we are being recorded for radio, but there are some light moments too (mention of Sara’s interest in rear-gunners draws a laugh from many in the audience) …

Both talk about their most recent books, as well as the process of growing a novel, and of course ‘The Game’, and I’ve just jotted down a few thoughts and quotes from each:

Sara:  “The universe drops ideas on me; sometimes they’re big and they squash me, sometimes they’re supportable.”
Sara:  “It was impossible for me not to be a writer.”
Elizabeth:  ” I consider my writing to be not magic realism, but fantastic naturalism.”
Elizabeth:  “Everything is good and bad.”

Both say they have an over-developed sense of story, which comes from The Game …

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Poetry in your sandwiches

Michele Leggott was delayed at Auckland airport, leaving chair Bernadette Hall to entertain us with one of her enveloping and sensuous poems before introducing the five other poets whose voices would fill our lunch hour with stories of Korean love hotels, beheaded chickens, Antarctic landings, love, hate, humour, history and nostalgia.

The big news of the session was that Rhian Gallagher (a New Zealand poet living mostly in the UK) has just been awarded the 2008 Janet Frame Literary Trust award (to the tune of around $10,000). I can see the appeal in her poetry, though to me it was the least inventive of the session.

Even though his language is plainer, I am impressed by the honesty of Chris Orsman’s voice – I feel he isn’t trying anything on, he tells it as he sees it and while his poems are long, his images are briefly sketched and give a sudden, clear view of scenes you would never have thought to imagine.

Aussie poet Geoff Page has an impressive history of publishing (16 collections to his name), plus an array of awards, residencies and years of travel. What I enjoyed most about his poems is their ambivalencies – something he pointed out himself – as if he uses poetry to argue with himself but never plans to reach definitive answers. His arguing may be playful, but the subjects he argues about are not always – many of his poems deal boldly and feelingly with racial and land issues in Australia.

Tom Weston
Tom Weston

The highlight of the session came at the end, when my mind (and belly) were starting to stray from focused listening. It was Tom Weston’s poetry that startled and delighted me in the way I always hope poetry will – with wholly unexpected turns, rampant imagination and unexplained metaphors that leave a lovely and unfamiliar taste in my mouth. He has published four collections, two of which are collaborations with painter Joanna Braithwaite.

Creating worlds: Elizabeth Knox and Sara Knox

Orphan Gunner
Orphan Gunner

I found Sara Knox’s book The Orphan Gunner hard to read, and although I desperately wanted to like Elizabeth Knox’s books, I have struggled there as well. So hopefully at the end of this session I will be suitably impressed, full of insight and understanding, and willing to give them both another go.

One hour later… Hmmm still not convinced unfortunately. I really liked listening to them both, they are quick, very funny and brimming full of ideas and enthusiasm. However, after many many questions from the chair John McKenzie about the whys and wherefores of The Dreamhunter series, I am really none the wiser, perhaps even more confused! In many ways the two sisters could have run the session themselves, they obviously have a great rapport, know each others books intimately and have of course have that wonderful imaginative life of story telling from their adolescence to call on.

I suspect for people who loved the Dreamhunter series that this would have been a session made in heaven. Plots and characters were dissected and analysed within an inch of their lives, it would have been good to hear more about the Orphan Gunner, and I felt like Sara Knox was left out in the cold a bit.

My other colleagues are now ensconced in the world of crime, grime and murder foul. I hope they come out still feeling like lunch!

Moving Stories

Moving stories in every way really, and what an apt title for a session on migration. Not only about moving countries but about being moved by the stories of dislocation and loss.

Moving Stories was chaired by Hana O’Reagan who did a great job in welcoming us to the occasion, setting the scene and getting a Friday morning audience into the groove. I could have listened to her more.

Ngai Tahu
Ngai Tahu

The first speaker was Te Maire Tau, a historian of Ngai Tahu descent. He spoke mainly about the Englishman, Hugh Carrington whose manuscripts he used to write his book Ngai Tahu: A migration History. I wish that I had read the book first, because I felt somewhat removed from what he was discussing, and wished for longer than the 10 minutes that he had been allocated. I’m sure he had more to tell.

The highlight of the session for me was poet Karlo Mila. She had a lovely presence, with a wonderful voice that takes you to far flung places and then back to the present. New Zealander by birth with a Tongan father and Palangi mother she talked of the pull of Tonga. She also talked of the fact that she looks Maori, learnt Te Reo and got to be in the first row of the the Kapa Haka group, and how hard it was for her as a teenager to realise that she wasn’t Maori, that she belonged elsewhere.

I would describe Arnold Zable as a collector of stories, a good listener, and ear for language. I wondered about the affect on children of refugees, or who have parents who have been through war. I remember growing up with my mothers stories of being in the Blitz, I felt the fear and relived the terror with her. Hearing the stories of his parents leaving Poland and losing all of their family must have had a huge impact, and he writes of this so eloquently.

I’m wondering if this session will turn out to be a highlight for me? It certainly showed what a difference a great chair makes to the occasion, and Hana O’Reagan really should be congratulated for doing such a great job.

Moving stories

Last night’s session on Captain Cook segued nicely into this morning’s session Moving Stories, where three writers “woven together by a common thread of migration”, in the poetic words of chair Hana O’Regan, talked about the history of migration as expressed in the stories and memories of migrants.  Historian Te Maire Tau was told early in his career that “history’s not what you think it is, it’s what you think it is”.  The message that history declined when it became concerned with facts was one that Vanessa Collingridge alluded to when she said that you can’t get to Cook by words and maps.

The glorification of empire exemplified by the mythification of Cook clicked in my mind with the story of Ngai Tahu as part of the family of empire written by English journalist Hugh Carrington in the 1930s. Tau came accross the manuscript as a student in the 1980s and it read differently from any other as a story of the tribe but also of the Carrington family.

The Carringtons were probably as much “the seed of the migrant dream” as poet Karlo Mila, who read very movingly from her two books of poetry Dream fish floating and A well written body, so movingly I can’t really put my feelings about it into words.

Born in Wellington but a Melbournian since the age of one, Arnold Zable is of Jewish descent. New Zealand saved his parent’s life as all those left behind in Europe perished and Zable grew up in a house of “ghosts and silence” where questions about the people in the photograph albums drew the response “I don’t want to talk about it”. His eight books are all concerned with wandering; his parent’s first language among the six they spoke was Yiddish, the language of wanderers.

One of the great things about festivals is the session that you drag yourself out to on a cold grey morning at 9 a.m. turning out to be a knock-out and this one was.

An unsolicited hymn of praise to libraries

We’ve two short audio clips from yesterday’s Francis Spufford session sponsored by Christchurch City Libraries. The author of The child that books built is a clear fan of libraries as the first clip shows.

Spufford also won over the fans:

It’s great to see these literary events happening in our city – make sure you get the most you can out of the festival!