“No moa, no moa…”

…in old Aotearoa. Can’t get ’em, they’ve et ’em, they’ve gone and there ain’t no Moa.”

Would I be able to resist the overwhelming urge to quote, or worse, sing those lines? Surely Quinn Berentson would have heard them many times before? The man has a Masters in Science Communication and those lines communicate the science of extinction in a commendably pithy way, so perhaps he would be understanding.

Moa the Life and Death of New Zealand’s Legendary Bird takes a bit longer to explain how “first we killed them, then we ate them, and then we forgot about them”. In 2009 Berentson set out to follow the trail of the creature that became so large and strange that they were almost as much mammal as bird.

He discovered that there was far more to the story of the moa (it should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘more’, not ‘mower’ – who knew?) than he had ever imagined.  It’s not just the story of the birds, but also of the scientists who ‘discovered’ them and what we know about them now.

Berrentson pointed out that this was not as easy as it might seem as everything about the giant birds, from their biology, to their evolution and then to their extinction has been argued over and re-examined for the last 170 years.

The moa story came along at just the right time. It had been newly discovered that the world had once been dominated by huge creatures that no longer existed. When moa remains were first discovered the public’s imagination was captured by it as a bizarre and grotesque monster. They featured on the front page of popular  newspapers and were world famous; often the first thing people had heard about New Zealand.  They were one of the first museum specimens to be photographed and every museum had its own skeleton.

While this was all very interesting the real fascination of this session was the personalities of the men who made the moa. Richard Owen , the ‘father of the moa’ was ‘extremely malignant’ according to mild-mannered Charles Darwin, who wrote him out of history after a long and acrimonious relationship. Talk about survival of the fittest.

It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Owen though, as he stole the credit for the work and ideas of Gideon Mantell, an amateur whose wife found the ‘Mona Lisa of fossils’  – considered to be the first dinosaur fossil found. This treasure happens to reside at Te Papa, although it is not on show. Snarky comment resisted.

Mantell’s obsession with fossils lead to his wife and his son severing contact with him. He suffered a terrible accident which resulted in his becoming a hunchback and was in such pain that he self-medicated, becoming an opiate addict. He was a Dr. so access to the opiates was not a problem.

Then his son Walter Mantell came out to New Zealand. He found moa bones that he sent back to his father in an attempt at winning his approval. But Mantell Snr had to give them to that evil genius Owen. When he sent his last batch back Owen’s perfidy was no longer a problem because Gideon Mantell was dead of an overdose.  You couldn’t make it up.

This was a great session and I could go on but really the best thing is to read the book. Although I must add that the moa is close to the top of the list of animals that could be cloned because we have recovered so much DNA. Coming soon to a swamp near you?

And I did resist singing.

Afghanistan is “a crossroads for every nation that comes to power”: William Dalrymple

First things first. You might like to get yourself a copy of Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple. I ended up having two separate late-night discussions about this session. The book uses Afghan sources for the first time to tell the story of the first Anglo-Afghan War:

In the spring of 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan for the first time. Led by lancers in scarlet cloaks and plumed shakos, nearly 20,000 British and East India Company troops poured through the high mountain passes and re-established on the throne Shah Shuja ul-Mulk. On the way in, the British faced little resistance. But after two years of occupation, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad and the country exploded into violent rebellion.

William was a brilliant storyteller, he moved swiftly from behind the lectern and strode the stage. He used slides to demonstrate the characters and location, and covered the story of the war from its origins, and repercussions, and linked it into today’s situation – and the similarities were chilling.

Lord Auckland
Lord Auckland, in Auckland.

Here are some of the interesting facts and observations that you will find in the book. I am only giving a sampling – there was lots of detail and information in this session (heck I took 13 pages of notes!):

  • In 1837 The East India company had the largest standing army in Asia. The modern equivalent would be Microsoft with nuclear weapons.
  • The British and Russians were both advancing, and “were going to meet in the unmapped territory – Afghanistan”.
  • A British intelligence officer saw Russian cavalry in a valley, riding into Afghanistan, and this incident “was the weapons of mass destruction of its day” – “a dodgy dossier equivalent” – using a single piece of intelligence to misrepresent what was going on.
  • Lord Auckland wasn’t a great leader.
  • Troops began assembling in 1839. Their kit included 300 camels carrying the regimental wine, 30 carrying cheroots and cigars, one carrying eau de cologne. “The only thing they didn’t think of bringing was a map”.
  • Afghanistan is very expensive to hold. They stopped paying off border tribes, and roads were cut off, postmen killed, and no merchants got through.
  • Sleeping with Afghan women does not go well. Alexander Burns picked the wrong woman to romance, and ended up with his head used as a football and his torso strung up in the bazaar. One of the Afghans said the fraternisation must stop “otherwise these English will ride the donkey of their desires into the fields of stupidity”.
  • On 6 January 1842, 18,500 men, women and children left their camp and walked out into the thick snow of the passes.
  • The death rate was appalling – by the second night only 10,000 are left alive. They walk up the pass in a blizzard and only 5000 come down.
  • More hideous ambushes and deaths occur.
  • One Dr Brighton gets through, the only survivor until later some Gurkhas and a Greek merchant get through.

The details of this story are known by Afghans, it is part of their national belief that they can repel all invaders.

Dalrymple had a lot to say on present-day Afghanistan: “There is nothing you can do in the world more expensive than war.” What then is the alternative? Dalrymple suggests “Capitalism creates a set of incentives that stop people going to war”. Some local Afghans have said “These are the last days of the Americans, next it will be China”. China has bought a lot of mineral rights. Afghanistan is “a crossroads for every nation that comes to power”.

Tattoo you: Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013

New Zealand tattoo: in the home of the tattoist’s art by Chris Hoult and Steve Forbes is a beautiful book: “a snapshot of the tattoo scene in 2011 and 2012”. Photojournalist Chris and writer Steve have made something rather special. Their session managed to convey the richness of the tattooing culture even though as they said “We’re photojournalists, we’re not noted for our oratory”. They showed a series of striking images as part of their presentation.

The book’s genesis was in an observation of Europe’s keen interest in ta moko. A sample chapter was created for the Frankfurt Book Fair, and it proceeded from there. Just after the book was given the go-ahead, the biennial tattoo convention in Auckland took place – so they had the potential for new material for their book.  After the convention, they decided focusing on a dozen artists wasn’t enough.

Steve Forbes then explained more about the history of ta moko and tattooing in New Zealand. Tattoo chisels have been found in our oldest archaeological dig sites. Mokomokai (preserved tattooed heads) once became a macabre commerce. Some chiefs who signed The Treaty of Waitangi drew their distinctive moko patterns as their signature. But as time moved on and ta moko declined, the last bastion was the kuia who wore the chin moko.

He delved more into the history including the Samoan influence, and the controversy around non-Maori like Robbie Williams sporting traditional designs.

So how many Kiwis are tattooed? Apparently we are the most tattooed people on earth – in 5 Kiwis are inked. 22% of women, 17% of men. Interestingly, only five of us in the crowd ‘fessed up to being inked – and neither of the two writers are.

The more recent tattooists and their business was explored with lots of great examples. Many of the current crop of tattooists are art school graduates and young, keen and smart business people.

Chris had some top tips if you are thinking of getting inked:

  1. Choose your design carefully.
  2. Don’t get tattooed under the influence of drink, drugs, or strong emotions.
  3. Get inked after New Year’s. Lots of people book in November, but then spend their holiday pay so often tattooists have free time early in the new year.
  4. “Beware because they are artists and they are looking for fresh, blank canvas – you”
  5. Cheap tattoos aren’t good, good tattoos aren’t cheap.

Tattoo Aotearoa sessionWriter Steve Forbes and photographer Chris HoultDonna and photographer Chris Hoult

Our monied world

Obviously C.K. Stead and Charlotte Grimshaw are a popular pair, it was a full house.  Steve Braunias was as much a participant as a facilitator with pithy one liners that had the audience eating out of his hand.

This apparently was the first time that Charlotte and her father had been interviewed together. Charlotte has always been intent on making it in her own right, even down to taking the name of her husband – Grimshaw – when she would have prefered to have kept her own name. She did acknowledge that she had finally made her own way and could now stand alongside her father as a writer.

The Stead household would have been an interesting one. Allen Curnow lived over the road, Frank Sargeson was a regular visitor. As Steve Braunias said C.K.Stead had “hung out with the dusty ancients that had invented New Zealand literature”. Charlotte recounted being upstairs as a young girl in her favourite room on her own enjoying the solitude, when she was joined by a man, with a beard and odd looking clothes who came and sat and the floor with her. She glared and him, and he glared and her until her father arrived and introduced her to James K. Baxter.

C.K Stead made the point that although his three children were all talented writers (his son is an art historian and daughter is the editor of the Atlantic Monthly), it is Charlotte who has inherited the “writing gene”.  Although she trained as a lawyer the urge to write was never far away.

The audience was no doubt completely different from the one that attended Don McKinnon earlier in the day. Stead was a member of the Labour Party at the age of seven, and he eloquently talked of his opposition to the Iraq war. As a reader you are always aware of their political persuasions but both stressed that they were writing about the human condition.  Charlotte also said that in the end she just wanted to write good dramas,  and at this point her father acknowledged that she was a great writer.  I wonder if this was news to Charlotte? Steve Braunias seemed to think so and came back to this statement a number of times!

I enjoyed this session very much, the questions were interesting and both participants engaging.  It was really good to see a father and daughter having such a good time!

Down with cupcakes: Everlasting Feast with Lauraine Jacobs

How can sitting all day listening to other people talk be so tiring?  Two more sessions at the end of the day, and I was in need of something to perk me up a bit. The Lauraine Jacobs session entitled Everlasting Feast – the title of her new book, unfortunately didn’t quite do the trick.  Perhaps it was because her interviewer Graeme Beattie had suffered an accident and couldn’t be there, so everyone was thrown a bit, or maybe it’s because I was feeling a bit jaded about cooking,  endless hours of watching My Kitchen Rules had taken its toll! I only had myself to blame.

Lauraine’s interviewer Nicola Leggett was also her publisher and was reluctant for Lauraine to go into too many details about stories from the book, she thought that it would be much better if we went out and got a copy for ourselves – not surprisingly! I found this to be a shame, if I had heard more about the stories and recipes it would have probably enabled me to feel a bit more enthusiastic, what we did hear however assured me that it is jam-packed with wonderful tales of Lauraine’s life, the people she has met, Julia Child being one of them –  the characters, events and of course food that she has enjoyed.

I did pick up a few tips. There is butter and then there is BUTTER apparently and it should be kept in tin foil, and if not used at once then freeze it. Bakers and cooks don’t usually converge – you are generally one or the other, Lauraine always has smoked salmon, eggs and a great piece of cheese in her fridge, her favourite ingredients are lemons, butter, salt, and  herbs. Eclairs could well be the next big thing, cup cakes are definitely out!

Writers for young and old: AWRF 2013

Cover: A great and terrible beauty“Shall I tell you a story? A new and terrible one? A ghost story? Are you ready? Shall I begin?” This is a quote from Libba Bray’s A great and terrible beauty but it could apply to any of the four Young Adult writers who read from their work.

Apparently Bray loves to curse and I love to hear unlikely people curse so I had high hopes for this session. Admittedly the only reason I thought she was an unlikely four-letter word flinger was her appearance as seen on her blog (wholesome) and the fact that she is a P.K (Preacher’s Kid).

Bray was introduced as Super-Vixen because she has always wanted to be introduced as Super-Vixen, there was no cursing but she did do a great reading from her book Beauty Queens (“like Lord of the Flies only with sequins”).

There was a killing imitation of a former Vice-Presidential candidate, and Governor of Alaska, and a very funny parody of a feminine products ad.

Patrick Ness came to the stage bemoaning having to follow Bray but he had us rapt with a world-premiere reading from his new book More than this. No it’s not from the Roxy Music song, nor is it from the One Direction song. It’s from the Peter Gabriel song. It’s not published until September and I for one cannot wait.

I’ve seen Kate de Goldi lots of times at festivals  and I hold her in very high esteem. She’s a great writer but I think she is the best chair ever; a model of intelligence and acute observation without being a pill about it. I’m not going to get the chance to admire her chairing skills this time, so hearing her read from The ACB of Honora Lee was the next best thing.

Paula Morris is also a non-pill when she could so easily be one. She’s won awards for her short stories and her fiction for adults, now she has a very successful series of supernatural mysteries for Young Adults. She also has degrees from Universities in New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Sigh. Morris’ first YA novel “went gang-busters in the U.S.” and it’s easy to see why if the bits she read are any indication of how compelling her YA work is.

This session gladdened this old librarian’s heart. It was a nice ‘mix-mash’ of young and old. Actual young people attended. They appeared to have made their way there under their own steam, not dragged along by adults. They were willing to stand at the back or sit on the floor. Full heads of naturally dark, red and fair hair could be seen, instead of rows of  greys and expensive dye jobs.

And they talked about books. They had opinions on the alternative ending of A Clockwork Orange. They were planning Alice in Wonderland themed birthday parties. Some of them ran to get their books signed at the end of the session. You won’t see that in a William Dalrymple crowd. Discreet but determined pushing is more their style.

Word(s) of the session: mix-mash.

Return of the King: William Dalrymple AWRF 2013

Cover: Return of a kingSince he first went to India in 1984 at the age of 18 William Dalrymple has been hooked on Delhi. This fascination lead to City of Djinns, White Mughals and The Last Mughal; books that both Salman Rushdie and the New York Review of Books called “compulsively readable”. Max Hastings, another big name at the festival, called him “an outstandingly gifted historian”.

In Return of a King he has turned his gifts to the 1837 British invasion of Afghanistan, an invasion launched by Lord Auckland, the man who gave his name to the city where the audience to hear Dalrymple formed itself into a large crush  in the foyer of the Aotea Centre.

Bad manners abounded in the queue to get through the doors and secure a good seat. Discreet and then overt queue jumping, gentle then firm pushing;  they were all on full display. The only relief came from eavesdropping on conversations about booking a villa in Tuscany for this Northern summer.

In a way it’s a shame we weren’t assembled outside the Aotea Centre as apparently there is a municipal flower bed featuring a statue of Lord Auckland. It stood in Calcutta until 1969 when the Bengalis decided Auckland was a much more suitable place for it.

Dalrymple was urbane, he was  entertaining, he had a lovely voice, he had fascinating things to say. The crowd loved it although the laughter at the folly of the English died out as the session went on and the dreadful suffering and losses of the defeat became evident.

As for the future of Afghanistan in the world? Not cheery.

For those who like to know who writers rate and read, Dalrymple’s list of the best books about Afghanistan includes:

Dalrymple’s favourite travel writer is Patrick Leigh Fermor, Artemis Cooper‘s biography of Fermor was one of Dalrymple’s best books of 2012 and he thinks Robert Macfarlane is Fermor’s heir.

The For Later list grows ever longer.

No gold bar from Gaddafi: In the Ring with Don McKinnon

In the Ring at Christchurch City LibrariesBefore I went to Don McKinnon’s session this morning, I knew little about the Commonwealth or the man who was Secretary-General of the organisation from 2000 to 2008. Now I feel I have an insight into the complexity of dealing with the leaders of the 54 member countries and the tenacity it takes to affect positive political change.

Sir Donald McKinnon, ONZ, GCVO, or Don as he likes to be called, was in conversation with journalist Jane Clifton, discussing his memoir In the Ring and entertaining an appreciative audience with insights from his time with one of the world’s most revered diplomatic organisations.

The Commonwealth is the longest established organisation in the world. Times have changed since the days of the British Commonwealth. Today there are only 16 realms in the group, most of the member states are republics.

Don McKinSir Donald McKinnon at AWRF 2013non spoke about the challenges of dealing with leaders from different cultures and the importance of forming strong personal relationships. He said we believe in transactional relationships in the west whereas in Asia, Africa and the Pacific, building relationships is key.

None of the countries in the Commonwealth are simplistic in their nature. They are complex and not always easy to deal with. Add to this the fact that ‘all leaders are in a permanent state of stress’ and you have a situation which would challenge even the most experienced politician.

Don recalled attending an African Leaders’ meeting and Colonel Gaddafi entered the room, kissed every person there three times, then gave them each a gold bar. To his disappointment, Gaddafi’s minders decided that Don didn’t qualify for a gold bar because he wasn’t actually an African leader.

Don McKinnon is a politician through and through and knows that success in politics centres around trust and making, and keeping, friends in all the right places. Don’t expect any gossip. The author is a career politician who knows his stuff. He is a captivating speaker and not afraid to state his opinion.

And as to the future of the Commonwealth? He says, as long as it sticks to its values, promotes itself strongly and makes sure people know what it’s doing, it will remain an important player in the world of international politics. “There are 180 million kids in the world who will never see a school in there life. There is no shortage of work to be done.”

Fleur Adcock returns to poetry and New Zealand: an interview

Glass Wings at Christchurch City LibrariesFleur Adcock is a legend in New Zealand literary circles. She is one of our favourite poets and, although she has spent much of her life in England, her popularity is as strong as it ever was judging by the long queues at the book signing session.

For ten years Fleur Adcock didn’t write poetry. Instead she ‘fell in love with facts and wanted to extract them and not deal with any of that airy fairy stuff you think up in your head.’ Her latest collection, Glass Wings, marks the end of this creative drought.

I was lucky enough to grab a few minutes of her time after her session.

Are you glad to be back on New Zealand soil?

I’m feeling rather overwhelmed at being back in New Zealand. I’ve been here for about five weeks so I’ve had time to get to know it again and get to know people again and remember how beautiful it is. Auckland is so beautiful – all the trees and the vegetation – and Wellington is kind of home so I do have those connections. Then I’m off again but this time I’m definitely going to come back sooner.

I really enjoyed your latest collection of poems, Glass Wings. Ancestry is an important theme running through your work?

Yes, it’s becoming more and more so in people’s lives but this happens as people get older. They start taking an interest in their ancestors. I often find when people say the kids aren’t interested, just wait twenty years. They’ll get around to it.

In the session you read your poem The Chiffonier which was published in 1986 and at the time hit a chord with many people who went out to buy The Listener especially to read this poem. It deals with the idea of rootlessness and being torn between places.

You realise you can’t substitute things for people but things are important too because they are symbolic of people. They remind us.

You spoke about the state of the libraries in England. Since the earthquakes in Christchurch, libraries have proved to be important places for people to come to. The thought that many libraries in England closing is quite frightening to me.

It is appalling. I suppose it will start creeping back again and they’ll realise what they’ve done. I think they’re trying to find substitutes and set up places in supermarkets and things but not in actual library buildings. These are often listed buildings, buildings that have been donated. There are so many other uses libraries can be put to. They can always extend their range and find ways of keeping them going – if they wish.

You said searching though the internet or on a computer is very different from searching for books in the library.

Just browsing you suddenly see an interesting looking volume down on the bottom shelf and you pick it up and you open it and it hits you with a new experience, a new realm to explore.

Fleur Adcock at AWRF 2013Did you enjoy being a librarian?

Some of the time, yes. I got stuck in cataloguing for six or seven years in the Foreign Commonwealth Office and that was very depressing because we had to keep training new, young cataloguers and I was the only one who could do it until I  finally trained someone who really liked it and she took over. Then I went into the reference section and I could do research and the things I like doing now. Answering questions from readers who had written it. That’s what I like doing – finding things for people.

Are you writing poetry now?

Yes, well not at this moment. I haven’t written anything for the last month. It’s impossible because I never stop talking. I’m in the middle of a new sequence and I’ve been doing some research for that about my father’s early days in New Zealand as a teenager so when I get home, as I have to call it, I’ll get on with that.

You mentioned the term ‘reclusive’. Is it difficult for someone who loves to spend time quietly working on their own, to come out to writers festivals?

No, I like doing things like that as long as there’s a home to go back to in the end. As long as you don’t have to get back to the husband. I can’t deal with that. I can’t wake up in the morning and have someone around the house because a lot of my thoughts, my ideas and impulses occur when I’m fresh when I wake up in the morning. It just wouldn’t work if I had to converse over breakfast.

Sylvie Simmons – Mr Cohen Revealed

I'm your man at Christchurch City LibrariesSylvie Simmons, rock music writer and biographer, was in conversation with Noelle McCarthy about her latest work, I’m your man- The life of Leonard Cohen.

Simmons was born in London and went to a privileged girls’ school in which she was trained to come out to the Colonies and teach us how to embroider and place the correct cutlery on the dinner table. The thought of this repulsed her so she wrote a long list of all the jobs she could think of and narrowed the list down to three:

  • a spy (she rejected this idea because it would be ‘working for the man’),
  • a BBC Anchorman (until she realised she didn’t have a penis)
  • and a rock journalist.

She chose the latter and has gone on to become a world-renowned music biographer. As Noelle McCarthy said:

Sylvie Simmons’ books blow your mind. She doesn’t just write about people. She effects an introduction.

Leonard Cohen is currently receiving a ‘tsunami of love and attention’. It seems everyone everywhere is talking about him. In fact, throughout the Writer’s Festival we have heard Leonard’s dulcet tones over every loudspeaker in the venue so much so I’m beginning to feel if I hear ‘there’s a crack, a crack in everything’ one more time, I may just crack myself. He is touring, he has found happiness and ‘he wears a grin like an eight year old boy’.

Sylvie SimmonsLife wasn’t always so easy for the poet/singer/songwriter. In his younger years, Cohen suffered bouts of severe depression, shyness and perfectionism. He found performance very, very difficult. He says his depression wasn’t a matter of having the blues, it was ‘what can I do to get me through this day’.

Simmons spoke about Cohen’s love of women ‘horizontally and vertically’, his faith, his deep spirituality which drove him to spend five years in a monastery, his fascination with hypnotism and his love of his grandchild. Even within this short session, she breathed life into the legend of the artist. When she spoke I could see him standing in his kitchen, chewing up bread to feed to a baby bird that had fallen out of a nest in his garden.

Makes me want to go out and buy a blue raincoat.