Courting controversy: recalling and retelling the First World War – WORD Christchurch

WORD-Web-Event-HOWWEREMEMBERWriters and historians Anna Rogers, Paul Diamond and the totes delightful Harry Ricketts discussed the First World War, the individual stories of participants and the ways in which New Zealand has remembered, fabricated and re-imagined the events and legacy of the war.

Contributing essayists to How we remember. New Zealanders and the First World War Anna and Paul both related stories of individual Kiwis. Anna told the tale of Fanny Speedy, a Hawkes Bay nurse who saw over 4 years service in Egypt and Western Europe. Paul Diamond revealed the scandal of closet homosexual and “war shirker” Wanganui Mayor Charles E MacKay who in 1920 shot and wounded blackmailing poet Walter D’Arcy Cresswell. Yes, even more scandalous than Michael Laws!

Both writers subscribe to the view these individual vignettes can help illuminate the larger story of the war, the attitudes, fears and actions of the nation and wider world. Paul Diamond also praised Kirstie Ross and Kate Hunter’s book Holding on to home: New Zealand stories and objects of the First World War where “the objects unlock stories” both on the home and war front.

Paul Diamond drew interesting parallels between the First World War and the Canterbury/Christchurch earthquakes both with a vast diversity of experiences, attitudes and stories. Luckily for future historians these Canterbury memories and experiences have been handy-dandily captured in the UC CEISMIC digital archive. If only accessing primary sources for the First War World was so easy.

Harry Ricketts concluded by calling for controversy over the next four years of First World War focus. He and the panellists hoped for fresh eyes, new perspectives, and raw, not traditionally accepted and polished tales of the First World War. New stories and research that can help shape and evolve our understanding of warfare and its role in the history of New Zealand.

For more on the First World War:

  • Canterbury 100 – Telling the story and experiences of Canterbury people during the First World War.
  • WW100 New Zealand – The centenary of New Zealand’s participation in the First World War will be marked from 2014-2019 through commemorative events, projects and activities in all parts of the country
  • Christchurch City Libraries – First World War resources, events, booklists, postcards and links.
  • 100 Stories project at Monash University – The darker untold stories of returned  Australian soldiers and their families.

WORD Christchurch:


Journey to Hicksville – WORD Christchurch

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know I was going to write comics. When I would read Tintin, even the individual panels seemed like a little window I wanted to climb inside. Creating my own comics is a way to climb in that window.

Journey to HicksvilleDylan Horrocks

Dylan Horrocks was born in 1966 and raised on a diet of Asterix, Tintin and Captain Marvel. He was part of the 80s zine revolution, photocopying his own comics at school and giving them away. Despite learning (to his surprise) that writing comics is not a high-paying profession, he moved to London with the intention of making his way in the European comics market. It was in London, pores full of smoke, that he began to write comics set in New Zealand.

Hicksville started off as a side project, emerging from the stories I was writing for Pickle. Eventually Pickle was swallowed into Hicksville and that became my main thing.

Given the option by his publisher to either finish off the Pickle series or bring out Hicksville as a graphic novel, Horrocks decided to publish Hicksville.

After working on something so carefully planned out (Cafe Underground), I wanted to do something I could just make up as I went along.

There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in —Leonard Cohen

As someone who is fascinated by concepts such as Jasper Fforde’s Well of Lost Plots, writing ephemera and the mystery of unfinished drafts, I was excited to discover Horrocks is a fellow fan of the unpolished product (which I might have guessed from his recent title Incomplete Works). There’s just something alluring about the idea of what might-have-been:

A finished novel is like a palimpsest where if you scrape it away you find all the different Incomplete Works — Dylan Horrocksversions, all the drafts and different endings the author gave up on.

It reminds me of an anecdote in The  Changeover session, where Karen Healey recounted the experience of re-reading her own work and discovering she’d accidentally created a time capsule of pre-quake Christchurch. Every written word is a moment captured in time. Sometimes it can be a thought that will ring just as true across several centuries, and sometimes it will be a mystery to be puzzled over by a future reader.

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen

Titular Sam Zabel is in Christchurch for a conference when he is catapulted into a comic set on Mars. His adventures and attempts to make sense of himself make up the book soon to be published by Fantagraphics, and otherwise available on his website.

I just wanted to set up a situation that had plenty of potential for exploration. I wanted to ask: Does it matter ethically what we fantasise about? Do we bear a moral responsibility for our fantasies?

If you know the answer, please leave a comment and let me know!

Morning tea for forty three: WORD Christchurch

Diane Setterfield, Eleanor Catton and Roberta Smith

I had tea with Eleanor Catton and Diane Setterfield on Saturday morning at WORD. Well, myself and about forty other Book Discussion Scheme members, that is.

Morrin Rout hosted the event, armed with a long list of questions submitted by BDS convenors. I loved that the event kicked off with a chat about hairstyles – just like every book club I have ever belonged to! Diane’s was described as “artfully tousled” and Morrin’s as “strangely thatched.” Eleanor, her beautiful sleek long locks flowing down each side of her face, just smiled enigmatically.

Here’s how it went:

How has your background and upbringing influenced your writing?

Diane said she was the first person in her family to go to university. She had been a voracious reader as a child, but her family was unschooled. She always keeps her mother in mind as her sole reader. This gives her books a wide readership range.

Eleanor comes from a family of readers – there was no TV in her home. She credits her brother’s reaction to a short story she wrote when she was 7 or 8 years old with her writing rule: always to see your work as your detractors might see it.

How do you get into the minds of people who are not your age, gender or nationality?

Bellman and blackDiane (The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman and Black): It helps if you are a shy, quiet observer. Observation and listening make up seventy-five percent of the work. Always stretch a bit beyond what you believe you are capable of. The rest is a kind of magic.

The Luminaries is such a complex novel, how on earth did it come about?

Eleanor: I knew I wanted to write a historic novel about the West Coast gold rush (1864-1867). Overall it took me five years, and there were long periods of incubation in that time. I found a wonderful website called Solarium where you can see the exact position of the planets and the sun, moon and stars for any date in the past. For two weeks I studied the skies over Hokitika for the three year period in which I was was interested. In particular, I noticed Mercury (which represents trickery and deceit). So in a way, the story had been constellated for me. But it was a real headache to write and I have many, many folders in my computer under the heading Luminaries!

Where did you get your ideas for these two books?  What were your influences?

Diane: The Bellman and Black book began from listening to the radio (BBC Desert Island Discs, to be precise!) The radio is where all good books should start, in my opinion! Then I wanted to write a ghost story where a really robust character is haunted, but set it somewhere unscary. So the question becomes – is he mad or is he haunted? I was also fascinated by the vast London emporiums of mourning paraphernalia. Oh, and I always knew, from way back, that I would write about a character called William Bellman.

The LuminariesEleanor: Jung got me thinking about Astrology.

At what point in the writing of your book did you know what the title would be?

Eleanor: Right at the very start of the book I knew it would be called The Luminaries.

Diane: I only worked out the title right at the end!

What books are you reading now?

Eleanor: The Golden Bough – A Study in Magic and Religion

At this point I had a balancing meltdown with my muffin, my coffee, my notepad and pen and I missed Diane’s answer. If any reader who was at this event can remember Diane’s answer, or indeed can add any more information to this blog, just  comment below!

Because of the small number of invited guests (thanks Book Discussion Scheme), I felt more connected to these two authors than I would have done in a large packed venue. And, as a result,  I feel inspired  to read both The Luminaries and Bellman and Black. You can’t say better than that now can you?

Are you struggling to come up with ideas for Random Acts of Kindness Day?

September 1st is Random Acts of Kindness Day. I must confess to having a certain cynicism about these type of days. Surely every day should be a day of random kindness, just like every day should be Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Children’s Day.

Cover of Random Acts of Kindness by AnimalsPerhaps I should try to be more randomly kind and hope that days like this highlight that there are always opportunities to do something nice for someone else, be they a friend or a complete stranger. Even animals are doing it!

So I had a look at some of the suggestions on the RAK page, and wondered how the Library could help out.

I could bake for friends, neighbours, workmates (maybe not  strangers – they might be a bit suspicious!).

Flowers from my garden. Hmm, I might have to work on that one for next year as my garden is not up to much, so some flower gardening books might be useful, or maybe paper flowers would suffice.

I could volunteer; our webpages have plenty of suggestions.

Maybe I could make somethinganything

Make someone laugh, try out some magic tricks!

Take the neighbour’s dog for a walk, perhaps do some training while I’m at it?

Hold a themed party. Sounds like a lot of work, but these party books might give me some ideas.

Reading a story to a child. Now this I can do! These two titles have been suggested by our children’s selector: Oi Frog and Tge Tiny King.

Whatever you do as a random act of kindness on this day, or any other, the Library is sure to be able to help you out.

Cover of The Tiny King Cover of The Cut Flower Patch Cover of 101 Dog Tricks Kids Edition Cover of Cardboard Creatures Cover of A Good Baking Day

Norman Kirk – 6 January 1923 – 31 August 1974

It is 40 years since the death of Prime Minister Norman Kirk, M.P. for Sydenham. He had earlier been M.P. for Lyttelton, and Mayor of Kaiapoi.

Some facts from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography and NZHistory:

  • Norman became a foundation pupil at Linwood Avenue School in April 1928.
  • At school Kirk quickly learned to read. He developed a lifelong passion for libraries and books and acquired an extensive vocabulary.
  • He built his own family home in Kaiapoi.
  • Norman worked as an engine driver at the Firestone factory in Papanui, and cycled between Kaiapoi and Papanui to work.
  • On 9 December 1965, 42-year-old Norman Kirk became leader of the parliamentary Labour Party, and leader of the opposition.
  • Kirk led Labour to victory with a majority of 23 seats on 25 November 1972.
  • He applied pressure to the French to stop testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific, then sent a a frigate to the test area ‘to provide a focus for international opinion against the tests’.
  • His government reformed Māori land law – the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 set up the Waitangi Tribunal. See television footage of Waitangi Day ceremonies on 6 February 1973.
  • He grew progressively more unwell, and died in our Our Lady’s Home of Compassion hospital in Island Bay on Saturday 31 August 1974 of ‘congestive cardiac failure’ and ‘thromboembolic pulmonary heart disease’. He was 51. Kirk was survived by his wife and family. He had a state funeral, and it was attended by thousands of New Zealanders.
View image of Norman Kirk's coffin
Alongside the coffin of the late Prime Minister Norman Kirk at Parliament House, Wellington. Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: 1/4-021782-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Gallery - Norman Kirk The First 250 Days

Cover of The Mighty Totara Cover of Diary of the Kirk years
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Words + Music – Kristin Hersh at WORD Christchurch

Last night was a night of magic women in the Cathedral – Eleanor Catton, followed by an evening of words and music with Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses. Her festival bio:

American songwriter, guitarist and author of the memoir Paradoxical Undressing (Rat Girl in the US). She founded the seminal art-punk band Throwing Muses at age fourteen and is widely recognised as an indie rock pioneer. She is a mother of four, and lives in New Orleans.

WORD Christchurch literary director Rachael King was excited to present one of her musical heroes, and the crowd was excited. I heard lots of longtime fans talking to each other animatedly before Kristin took the stage. We were all keen, and our hopes for something special were more than met.

Kristin’s voice – be it singing, or reading – had the audience spellbound – at once commanding, droll, and compelling.

A favourite moment was hearing the song Your Ghost. It was a night of pleasurable shivers. Bravo WORD, Bravo Kristen.

Kristin Hersh
WORD Christchurch literary directory Rachael King introduces Kristin Hersh
Kristin Hersh

Jackie French – WORD Christchurch

Jackie FrenchWhat do cheese, Juliet and wombats have in common? Australian children’s laureate and prolific storyteller Jackie French has written about all of them, and all were discussed in her session this morning along with history, Hitler and Hamlet. But most of all, she talked about the importance of reading.

When you have books, you have the power to create the future.

Reading to children

We need to keep reading to children past the point where they themselves learn to read; their understanding and their reading level are often mismatched, and there’s nothing that will put someone off reading more than being given simplistic, boring texts when they’re capable of understanding The Lord of the Rings. We need to read to them until they’re telling us to stop, it’s too embarrassing now.

With the best intentions, we could be giving our children the wrong books. What are the wrong books? (Is there such a thing?) Books that will put their children off reading, books that kids Should Read because it’s Good For You (what an attractive prospect), books, in short, that their children don’t want to read. Jackie suggested letting children find their own books — letting them loose in a bookshop or a library and seeing what fires them up. It doesn’t matter if it’s non-fiction or fiction or if it’s The Day My Bum Went Psycho or Jane Eyre, as long as they find a book that they can’t stop reading, that’s enough. They’re hooked. As an example she talked of a teacher who had tirelessly found and purchased books specifically to meet the needs of Jackie (and considering the way she inhales books, that’s impressive).

Hatred is contagious, but kindness can be, too.Pennies for Hitler - Jackie French

When discussing Pennies for Hitler and Hitler’s Daughter, she asked: How do you know what is good when you are 14? We’re a product of our society, our upbringing and our history. If you’ve been fed false information, how are you to know what is right without the benefit of wide reading and experience? And what happens when what your beliefs turn around to bite you?

Jackie mentioned Georg in Pennies for Hitler, passionate believer in the Aryan race, who upon the discovery of a Jewish ancestor must flee and hide his German identity and pretend to be first English and then Australian in order to escape persecution. When Japan joins the war on the other side he is overjoyed because now he, too, can hate something. They are all united in the hatred of the Enemy.

That’s pretty heavy stuff, how about wombats?

Jackie laughs:Diary of a Wombat

Everyone secretly wants to be able to get what they want by bashing up a garbage bin, but we can’t because we’re humans and we have to be nice. If you’re a wombat, you can. It’s the ultimate fantasy.

Books give us empathy, they give us hope, and they give us the imagination to create our own lives and decide what kind of people we want to be.

What kind of person do you want to be when you grow up?

A novel relationship: WORD Christchurch

Carnival SkyIn all my years of reading and attending Literary Festivals, I have never once been in the same room as a writer and an editor. WORD event The Novel Relationship, with two writers and their editor in the same space at the same time, was therefore a must for me.

The event, “chaired and refereed” by Chris Moore seemed to promise, if not blood on the walls, at least a bit of bruising and the possibility of raised voices. I took my umpteenth coffee, got my pen and paper ready and settled in for the fray.

The two authors were Laurence Fearnley, whose writing I love: Butler’s Ringlet; Edwin and Matilda; The Hutbuilder. She has a new book The Reach, which will be available in September. And Owen Marshall, whose work I have yet to discover. The editor was Anna Rogers and if ever I write a book, I will want her to be the person to guide it to publication. She was great.

They all know one another, so the event got off to a smooth start.

Laurence Fearnley likes a soft edit:

I like an edit that takes into account pace and tone. I like to meander into my sentences. Then an abrupt sentence can happen. The pace needs to match the character progression. I like sentences that walk into the sentence. Anna is good at that with me.

Owen Marshall appreciates that Anna is a writer herself and that they can actually get together to discuss any possible changes.

Editors are the traffic cops of writing, but they can only suggest.

Anna feels that an editor’s job should be in the background:

I’ve done my job if I am not seen.

The tension really ratcheted up when they had to decide who would read first. It was that civil. But I love to hear authors read their own work and I was not disappointed with their renderings.

But my mind wandered just a teensy bit to Lionel Shriver who famously dumped her editor and friend of long standing after she had been disparaging about Shriver’s book We Need to talk About Kevin, ran off with her ex-editor’s husband, married him, found another editor and made a lot of money.

Try as we might (and there were questions about self-publishing and the isolation and smallness of the New Zealand market), this event remained resolutely sweet and fluffy. A little lambkins-frolicking of an occasion. Dare I say it – and any editor would get the machete out I am sure: It was a nice event.

More WORD stuff


Aunty and the Star People: Documenting Lives

Gerard SmythOne of the most successful films at the New Zealand International Film Festival had a New Zealand author as its focus: Jean WatsonAunty and the star people explores the “fascinating double life” of Jean Watson (author of Stand in the rain) who started a children’s home in Southern India. It was completely sold out during the Festival and will be released in cinemas very soon.

Gerard Smyth (the director of Aunty and the star people) and Jean discussed her life and work in India as part of WORD Christchurch.

28 years ago, Joy Cowley invited Jean to accompany her to India to explore her interest in religion. During the trip, Joy had to rush home but Jean decided to stay. She says she’s been there “ever since, emotionally when not physically”.

For the last 27 years, Jean has set up, funded and run Karunai Illam, a Children’s home in India where children from dysfunctional or destitute homes live and attend school. They now also have a school and vocational training community college. There are currently 43 children in the home and 269 attending the day school. Jean spends about three months a year in India. She says “When I’m there, I forget about here. When I’m here, I can’t forget about there.”

Jean first found literary success with Stand in the Rain, a fictionalised account of her life with Barry Crump. Gerard described this novel as meeting “with huge acclaim”. Jean countered with “Not huge acclaim.” “Some acclaim.” Gerard compromised, Jean clarified with “Well, there weren’t many writers then…” Needless to say, Jean is very humble. She said “my ordinary life seems described as extraordinary in the media, to me it is an ordinary life, maybe I should make it more extraordinary.”

Throughout her career, Jean has met many New Zealand literary luminaries:

  • Bob Lowry: He gave Jean a job after he inadvertently got her fired from the Salvation Army by showing up to visit her in an inebriated state. Jean said he was renowned as the best typographer in New Zealand and taught her how to set up type.
  • Dennis Glover: “Very sort of sarcastic, open person. You could never take offence at him. I remember him calling me a middle aged Ophelia. Whatever that means.”
  • Janet Frame: Jean met her when she was trying to get a reference to get into University from Frank Sargeson. Janet eventually wrote her a reference as well. “Just a young lady with red hair who seemed to me extremely nice and empathetic.”
  • Joy Cowley, long-time friend and Patron of Karunai Illam, said “Unwrapping Jean’s writing takes you to  place beyond words.” Jean now wants to focus on her existential writing, similar to Address to a King, complete her autobiography and write a follow-up chapter for Karunai Illam, her book describing the establishment and running of Karunai Illam. Although her goals may change; when Gerard reminded her that “55 [her age when she started the Illam – ed.] is quite old to start a new life.” She countered with “I don’t know, maybe I’ll start a new one tomorrow. Time is an illusion.”


The Stars are out tonight – WORD Christchurch

Last night’s event at the Cardboard Cathedral was a corker.  SEVEN guests did their thing, and MC John Campbell was so engaging and literate I can’t help thinking – when is his book coming out?

I livetweeted the event, and hope it conveys the colour and brightness of this very special WORD Christchurch night.


More WORD stuff