The Case against inequality

The library has Max Rashbrooke’s book Inequality : a New Zealand crisis – and what we can do about it on order and it is due to be published in June.

The ARW site has this to say about the author.

Journalist Max Rashbrooke has written for national newspapers and magazines in Britain and New Zealand, including the Guardian, the National Business Review and the New Zealand Listener.  He was the recipient of the 2011 Bruce Jesson award.

Search catalogueIt would be fair to say that as a journalist writing about the growing gap between the rich and the poor and as a recipient of the 2011 Bruce Jesson award “given annually for critical, informed, analytical and creative journalism which will contribute to public debate”, that Max Rashbrooke would have a few tough things to say about the current state of affairs in New Zealand, and he certainly did, with Mark Sainsbury asking the questions. Max gave many statistics, for example the bottom 10 percent have had no increase in income in the past 30 years, at the top it has more than doubled.  Someone earning $14.80 per hour, which equals $490 a week after tax and after having paid for all essentials is left with $50 per week or $5 a day.

His belief is that inequality is not just an issue for those struggling with poverty but  that income gaps are corrosive for society as a whole. To back this up  his book contains interviews of people from all income levels and includes  essays from well-known researchers, who along with their analysis also provide solutions.

He made reference to Christchurch and suggested that we are experiencing inequality in the bucketloads, (not quite his words but that was the gist of it) which is either a good thing to hear as someone is acknowledging our issues, or a not so good thing because we really must be in a bad way!

The audience was right behind him, it was a free event and was jam-packed with good solid lefties.  People stood to ask questions that were ostensibly political speeches.  People cheered, it was like an old-time political rally with Mark Sainsbury conducting straw polls in his booming voice… “How many of you would pay higher taxes if it could help with the problem of inequality”? Every hand in the house went up, a biased audience yes, and depending on your political persuasion a result that is either comforting or downright nuts.  All in all a great free event and I am looking forward to the book.

Have a look at Max Rushbrooke’s Blog to read some of his articles.

The last day of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival

IMG_07186pm on Sunday night and I am in my hotel room looking forward to the trip home tomorrow.  Auckland has been itself in that it has rained and shined, sometimes all at once. I have marvelled at all the people and the beautiful old stone buildings. The festival has been a whirlwind of facts, figures, stories, discussions, a bit of famous author watching and endless cups of coffee.  There has been no time for shopping and barely time to eat. All in all very satisfying indeed.

Today I started off with a visit to the 1920s through to the 1950s with Rosemary Mcleod and The Secret life of aprons. A lovely hour spent looking at her slides of aprons she has known, from the beautiful to the downright odd. It was a lovely slice of New Zealand domestic history which was very much appreciated by the audience.Rosemary’s droll wit was perfect for the occasion. The Art Gallery was looking great, and I had time for a quick trawl around the contemporary art exhibition, with a quiet nod to Jacqueline Fahey’s piece that I could look at with new understanding having heard her speak on Thursday. I also loved the huge hand-made flowers created by Choi Jeong Hwa that hung in the atrium seemingly opening and closing at will.

IMG_0721Next up was a free session, Fifty Shades of WTF. I was to be disappointed, it would seem the fifty shades phenomena has reached the festival and it was full half and hour before it started.

What the Internet is doing to you with the author Aleks Krotoski was often way over my head, but she was an author with a mind like a steel trap who could probably have talked all day. Her interviewer Toby Manhire only needed to ask a couple of questions and away she went! Her basic premise was that the Internet isn’t doing anything, it is what we are doing to each other that is the issue. The Internet will not destroy and neither will it revolutionise, it is just a thing….we are still communicating, the means are different but not what we are talking about. She touched on cyber-addiction and whether there is such a thing (there isn’t apparently), romance on the Internet, and is the Internet capable of serendipity. That’s where I lost her.  The book sounds very readable, and if she writes like she talks it will be entertaining and full of information.

Lastly I toddled along to Faction, a bit of a silly choice as it was about the film The Red house which I haven’t seen, however Annie Goldson and the Alyx Duncan who made the film did a great job breaking down what it was all about.  Alyx used her father and step mother in the film, it started out as a documentary about their lives that didn’t work out and ended up with them acting themselves, but to a script that included some aspects that were true and some that were fictional.  I enjoyed the session and hopefully the library will be able to get the DVD once it comes out.

Thank you Auckland for providing such a great festival. 13,000 people was the last tally that I heard had attended the festival, which is amazing, and certainly warms a librarian’s heart.  To all those authors who spend hours writing, usually in quiet isolation,  I thank you for coming out and sharing your craft, your beliefs and passions.

A Tale of Paris: Edward Rutherfurd at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival

cover: ParisEdward Rutherfurd has known Paris well for most of his life and in his latest book he puts that knowledge to good use. Paris crosses centuries in the history of the city of light, following the fortunes of several families as they rise and fall through wars, revolutions, occupation, love and art.

Rutherfurd is a master of the big book. You may be relieved to know this is one of his shorter efforts – less than 800 pages and only spanning 700 years. It’s less of an orderly progression through history than his others; Paris alternates between the late 19th century and the eras before and after it.

Most of the action is set it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the French Revolution dealt with in one chapter, but Rutherfurd still manages to get lots of facts into his richly detailed story.

Wearing a jaunty black beret he told his second sold-out session of the festival why he changed the structure – his publisher and he wanted to shorten the book.

Rutherfurd and Wayne Macauley are very different writers but they both said the exact same thing at their sessions – “You’ve got to love your characters”.

Rutherfurd finds his plots and human stories in research. For Paris he used stories from his own family, but he also achieved the detail he is famous for by his usual methods of  reading a lot of history and visiting the best historical museums. He also swears by the little museums and the local historians.

So will he ever run out of capitals? Fans will be relieved to know it’s unlikely – he always has six or seven books at the back of his mind at any one time; books he has actually done research on. Perhaps next time he’ll get it down to 500 pages.

Five go mad on radium

I do love the science sessions at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival and this was a winner. The title of this post is a tribute to Wallace Chapman who has been my favourite host of the Festival. There was absolutely no doubt he had read the book, and he managed to share his enthusiasm for it  – and also succeeded in involving the crowd in the presentation – revealing lots of interesting knowledge and experience out in the audience.

He was reading Paris by Edward Rutherfurd at the same time as Mad on radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age by Rebecca Priestley but soon was only reading Mad on radium because it “drove a bus through some of the received wisdom” about New Zealand in the atomic age.

Rebecca, Wallace – and sometimes the audience – discussed radioactive water in Rotorua that was once considered therapeutic. Wallace exclaimed:

This is our history, and yet I can hardly believe it.

Rebecca PriestleyApparently radium conveyed cleanness, and was touted as an ingredients in various products from cleansers to toothpaste.

Rebecca explored Kiwi connections to the Manhattan Project and other nuclear research. Ernest Rutherford and “Rutherford old boys” like Ernest Marsden were the reason New Zealand managed to be involved in these enterprises.

Uranium fever sounds unbelievable, but in the 1950s it was a big deal – a “potential new industry on the West Coast” – especially when a couple of old Coasters discovered deposits. It turned out to be uneconomic to extract.

X-rays in shoe stores – remember those? Quite a few audience members did. And others knew about New Zealand’s first nuclear reactor. This subcritical reactor lived at the University of Canterbury’s engineering department. It was popular at Uni open days. It was disassembled in 1981 when it was decided nuclear power wasn’t needed yet.

Nuclear power was being considered in the 1960s, but went off the agenda with Maui gas discoveries and Huntly’s coal deposits  proving to be larger than first thought.

How did the anti-nuclear movement in New Zealand take shape? The first protest march was in 1947 – down Manchester Street in Christchurch. French testing in the Pacific and new knowledge about caesium and strontium in fallout getting into people’s bones solidified public opinion.

Will we consider nuclear power again? Maybe, if it becomes more economic suggest Rebecca:

New Zealand is probably the best place in the world to go ahead with renewable energy resources.

I am mad keen on this book and the combination of science and social history.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon – Interview with a true storyteller

The Prisoner of Heaven at Christchurch City LibrariesCarlos Ruiz Zafon is a publishing legend. He has published three novels out of a planned four that centre around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a metaphor for all the forgotten ideas from the world of thought, a depository of collective memory. He has sold 25 million copies and been translated into over 40 languages.

The author is passionate about storytelling, stage craft and the imagination. In his work he uses what he calls trickery or stage craft to enable his readers to ‘internalise history and feel they were there’. He is a highly visual person and says his stories unfold in the theatre of his mind.

I had the opportunity to talk to Carlos Ruiz Zafon (pinch me – it really did happen!) after his book signing session. I had to wait some considerable time. The queues of people waiting to see him looped around the auditorium like a restless python. His readers greet him like an old friend. Whatever Carlos Ruiz Zafon does, he connects with his audience in a way that touches people deeply. Finally, I grabbed my moment:

Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Rachel Huston at AWRF 2013The books you wrote around the Cemetery of Lost Books have become international best sellers. I know our customers at Christchurch City Libraries love them. Why do you think they’re so popular?

I think what makes books, movies or any piece of creative fiction  popular can be for different reasons. In general, I think when things are popular they are popular over time. They are not just the hype of the moment, or a fad. I think stories are about the way they are told… It’s the language, the story telling, the way things are staged. This is what the reader wants to experience. I think if you can enjoy that, then you want to share it with your friends… In this case, with my perception over the years and listening to readers, I think it is the way in which these stories are told… that provides excitement and engages readers and allows people to enjoy them and this is what lies at the bottom of their success.

Paula Morris referred to the four books as a cycle rather than a series. You referred to each book as a door into a central labyrinth. Each book reveals a different part of the story, the puzzle. Has this always been your intention?

Yes, that was my intention from the beginning. What I wanted was to create some kind of world that would allow people to explore the stories and the characters and the themes from different directions and to have a series of books in which a reader would read one of the books then perhaps two or someone would read them all and in any order and the experience of them all would be different…

Barcelona has become almost a character in your books. It is complex. It is full of dark forgotten places, mystery and intrigue. I come from Christchurch, a city that has has been virtually destroyed in our recent earthquakes. I’m missing our dark places. Where can I find them?

Every place has its own memories. Some cities are very old. Some are very modern. I spend a lot of time in Los Angeles which feels like a very modern city although it is much older than it seems. I’m intigued by cities. I see cities as if they were creatures. For me they’re organic. I look at them and I’m intrigued by their history and how they’ve become what they are. Every place, every city has its own history, its own soul and many, many cities have been destroyed many times… but still you can go there and you can smell the weight and the haunting of history. Your home place has been obliterated by an earthquake but I think there is a way – a city, the stories, the memories of people survive and if you’re there and you listen, the stones will talk.

Zac Harding and Carlos Ruiz Zafon at AWRF 2013I love the image of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. On Gala Night you spoke of the labyrinthine Acres of Books bookstore in Los Angeles. These containers of memory are like libraries. As a child, did you have much to do with libraries?

For me libraries and bookstores are kinds of repositories. They are a place for people meet books and for me that is what is important about libraries… because people are going to meet books they didn’t even know existed. This is a chance encounter. People may find a book that can change their lives and open their mind to many things and that wouldn’t happen if that place wasn’t there… Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by places where the books are. It’s important to have places where people can find an old issue and this can’t happen online or at an algorithm at a company that wants to sell you what they decide you should run into. No. You just walk into a library or a bookshop and you find books and one of these books talks to you. Why? We don’t know why it is one book or the other but when you read it things happen and I think that’s important.

The Gentle Wisdom of Anita Desai

The Artist of Disappearance at Christchurch City Libraries“I never considered doing anything else but writing. It was all I ever wanted to do.”

When I saw the name Anita Desai on the AWRF 2013 programme, I knew I’d move heaven and earth to get to Auckland to see her. I first discovered her work in my 20s and have pounced with delight on any new title that’s appeared since. I find her gentle wisdom captivating and her point of view intriguing. To think I’ve had the opportunity to talk in person to one of my favourite authors still hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m so in awe of her!

Anita Desai was born in pre-Partition Dehli to an Indian father and a German mother. Although she didn’t realise it at the time, her home life was different to others around her. She listened to music from around the world and there were books on the shelves. She describes Indian culture as ‘rich, loud and complex’ with a strong oral tradition of storytelling in which it was considered rude to withdraw with a book.

She learned English when she was at school and chose to write in the language she considers more flexible, more elastic than other languages. English contains many different influences and can be adapted to suit an author’s needs. When she started to write those around her saw this as ‘a harmless eccentricity, a nice quiet thing to do, not like being a dancing girl.’

Anita Desai at AWRF 2013And thank goodness she was given the opportunity to write. Anita Desai has been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize, with Clear Light of Day  (1980), In Custody (1994) and Fasting, Feasting (1999). She has set the bar high for new Indian authors who are receiving attention from the western publishing world today.

The Artist of Disappearance is the author’s latest work. It contains three novellas and proved to the ‘the most intense writing process I have ever been through’. The stories came to her virtually complete in themselves.

The novella form enables an author to take a section from the lives of the characters in which they undergo change. Unlike the short story, the form requires no neat conclusion. Novellas are like a slice of time from which readers draw their own conclusions.

Western literature is often preoccupied with the triumph of the individual over circumstances. The work of Anita Desai tells a different story. Her characters are not in control of life and her stories contain the awareness that ‘one is swept along by the tide of one’s own temperament and of history which is more powerful that you or I.’

My conversation with Anita Desai will follow.

Meeting Wayne Macauley

Sadly, the refrain when I said that we were meeting with Wayne Macauley was – “who”?  Four weeks ago I fell into the same category, but two books later and with a signed copy of his short story collection Other Stories I am a convert.

Robyn and I made our way to the rather flash Langham Hotel and waited somewhat nervously in the lobby for our allotted half hour of his time.  I was busy looking at the restaurant beside us,  full of people gainfully making their way through tiered plates full of gorgeous morsels when we spotted Wayne Macaulay coming out of the lift and pounced! I hope he wasn’t too taken aback.

Robyn launched in with a question about his unique writing style. There are few if any commas, no speech marks and a rollicking sense of wanting to keep reading – fast.  She was curious as to how this style developed.  It turns out that Wayne is a true craftsman.  His writing gets worked and then reworked, he hones it down gradually until you get the sense he is completely satisfied. Two and a half years seemed to be the average time to produce a book and he makes use of copious notes and journals that he has compiled while working on the outlines of the story.

IMG_0715I asked Wayne if he knew the ending of his book The Cook before he started. I was quite taken aback when he said he did, probably because the ending came as such a surprise that I couldn’t imagine how he could have just dreamed it up. However having already decided on the endings to his books Wayne feels that this gives him the impetus to keep the story moving forward. His other skill is to stretch believability.

He was happy to hear that I had read Caravan story feeling quite comfortable with the premise that a group of artists, writers and actors could all be uplifted from their homes and transported to the country. It wasn’t until I was half way through the book that I suddenly thought – wait a minute – people wouldn’t really let that happen? It turned out that this was just the reaction he was wanting, as her termed it the “unreality in reality”. I felt quite proud that I was the ideal reader!

The half hour was over before we knew it, which was a shame because you get the sense that Wayne Macauley has a lot to say. We had touched on Arts funding, urban sprawl, the foodie culture and pop idol reality TV. Wayne talked about aiming high and having a low boredom threshold and that to be a good writer he, as well as the reader need to be stimulated by what he is writing about.

I wanted to discuss how New Zealanders seem to have little knowledge of Australian writers, and if it was the same in reverse for Australians, but our time was up, so that will just have to wait until next time!

En Route to Venice – Bill Culbert: Ian Wedde AWRF 2013

Search catalogueBill Culbert is a New Zealand artist possibly better known in Europe than in his native land, but that should change in 2013. In April he was awarded the first  honorary doctorate in Fine Arts from the University of Canterbury and on his return to England he set to finalising the plans for his representation of New Zealand at the 2013 Venice Biennale.

Making light work is the first  substantial work on “the ideas, materials and conditions that have formed Culbert’s art for the past fifty years”. It’s the closest most of us will get to Venice and should help the reader to opine in an informed manner when the Biennale works are unveiled.

Anna Hodge, an editor at Auckland University Press, described it as an expansive monograph and a meticulously researched feat of scholarship and friendship.

Ian Wedde is the author and he is just the man for the job of explaining Culbert’s art; Wedde is the Poet Laureate, a fiction writer, essayist, curator and critic who worked closely with Bill Culbert on the book.

Incorrigible eavesdropper that I am I was riveted to hear from behind me that “Ian’s really loosened up, I find his poetry a lot more accessible” and the response “the skill is the rendering down, not the bulking up”. Indeed.

Wedde pointed out that this was a talk about getting to Venice. If you’re not going, you can see the Creative New Zealand Road Show (if it comes to Christchurch). The trajectory of Culbert’s practice has taken him from learning about light at Hutt Valley High to creating works with salvaged materials; from  perforations on the wall with light shining through them, to floor mounted works, to installations of light.

In his long career, Culbert has asked the same questions although he has answered them in different ways; questions about patterning, about where is the surface, about what is depth and not depth and what is movement.

At the session question time Wedde got the question he was expecting – “can you give us a hint of what will be shown at Biennale?” He answered that  it will be a walk through space including some of the space used when et al represented New Zealand. Audible gasps from the audience. There will be objects and at the end there will be a structure. So far so good. Wedde speculates that this will be a 3-D hut structure made of flourescent tubes that can be stood in and the viewer will be able to look up and see the sky. Which he hopes will be blue.

So now you know.

Life goes on: Kate Atkinson

A highlight of the festival was always going to be Kate Atkinson. I have heard her speak before so I knew that I would have an entertaining evening with plenty of laughs. Now that I had of course reached the giddy heights of interviewing some authors I was very interested in watching the wonderful Ramona Koval wield her formidable interviewing skills.  Perhaps I could learn a thing or two! (or three or four …)

Kate started off by reading an excerpt from her latest book Life after life. Her lilting English accent that so fitted the context made the book really come alive for me.  I wish she should read the book when it comes out in audio.

Kate’s process of writing is an intense one. She described how when she is writing a book she becomes distant from family and friends, she has conversations but finds herself thinking about the book and the characters rather than listening. She holds the book in her head at all times. When she describes her characters they sound like real people, and I suspect while she is in this process that to her they are.

Ramona asked Kate why she is so attached to writing about the Blitz. Kate was born in 1951, she had just missed the war but it was still talked about. 58 days and nights of relentless bombing led her to think about how this must have changed people, to make them think differently about life and death and to maybe get things into perspective. Although our earthquakes were nothing like the blitz her thoughts resonated with me as I thought about how we in Christchurch have changed. Earthquakes are now part of our DNA!

She did a huge amount of research and immersed herself in the stories of war, right down to playing only music from this era, watching endless films and newsreels of the time. She wanted to portray not just facts of this time, but the feelings and emotions.  I think she succeeded brilliantly. My mother went through the Blitz and I know that it affected her for the rest of her life.

Ramona had the ability as an interviewer to take the conversation all over the place without it feeling disjointed. After talking about the Blitz they somehow ended up talking about creative writing classes, of which Kate is not a fan. She feels strongly that writing is something you do on your own, it is isolated and individual and you have to learn to be your own critic. All the fiction writers I have heard at the festival have said more or less the same thing. Interesting considering the recent proliferation of creative writing courses in this country.

Kate has a new book beginning to form in her head and feels that she hasn’t finished with the whole theme of war yet, and no,  Jackson Brodie is not coming back in the short term.  Kate said he is off on a cruise somewhere – a long cruise.

A conversation with Rosemary McLeod

IMG_0680This is an unreliable memory of my conversation with Rosemary McLeod, writer, crafter and author of With bold needle and thread. Unreliable because due to background noise I had abandoned the recorder, which left me to take notes as we talked, which also failed as I became so engrossed and involved with what we were talking about that I forgot to take the notes!

The first question I asked was about the design of the book.  If you have seen it you will agree that it is beautiful. Rosemary had a large part to play in what was included from her vast collection of magazines and other collectables. Jane Ussher came to her house and photographed the collection in natural light so that all the colours were true to the original. The care and dedication are evident, it is a book to browse and enjoy.

Search catalogueRosemary is a collector of art, pottery, tablecloths, tea cosies, books, magazines, fabric … the list goes on. However once art became too expensive to collect, Rosemary realised that she enjoyed collecting the things that no one else valued. This led to the collecting of women’s craft, or applied art, and this in turn led her to realise that she wanted to make the sort of  things she was collecting, and to also use the patterns from the women’s magazines as a basis for her craft.

We talked about the process of making craft, how wonderful it is for dealing with stress. Rosemary had with tongue in cheek suggested that the book could have been called “Better than  Prozac”!

Rosemary described enjoying the process of working out how to make something and then deciding on the colours and materials to use, often relying on that wonderful crafters ‘Stash’.  Can there be anything more satisfying than finding a use for that tiny piece of 195’s cotton that you bought for 50 cents at the school fair in 1980?

IMG_0676I had been curious for a while about why there was the need to decorate the everyday items that were made. Rosemary described a scheme first started in Scotland in the 1930s called the  Needlework Development scheme. This project was to encourage a high standard of embroidery. It was disbanded during the war but started up again in 1945 to encourage women to start making and sewing again, possibly because they had been too busy working outside of the home in the war, and it was time to get back to the domestic again. Craft has always however been about meeting up with other women, company and creativity.

I also wondered if many of those women in the earlier years would these days be at art school, which led her to tell me that in the early 1900s embroidery was part of the Christchurch School of Art, and that if I managed to find a copy of The Studio year book of decorative arts that I would be amazed with what it included. If anyone knows anything further about this I would be very interested.  Here is a link to some art, including embroidery that was donated to the Macmillan Brown Library at the University of Canterbury.

We talked about colour and how we both like the old fabrics and colour schemes of the time. I especially love her embroidered flower tea cosy with the pastels and gentle colour combinations. We bemoaned the colours of bought felt in New Zealand, garish primary colours, but I am now off to view Ericas.com who Rosemary assures me stock half-tones that are far more pleasing on the eye.

Rosemary has had exhibitions of her own craft work as well as curating a number of other shows depicting applied arts in New Zealand.  Alongside all this she writes her weekly columns. Her parting comments to me were that she would like a couple of weeks off just to sit down and plan her next craft project. I hope she gets time soon as hopefully there might be another beautiful book to come out of it.