Remembering ANZAC: WORD Christchurch

Book cover of ANZACPhotographer Laurence Aberhart‘s latest work is ANZAC, a collection of 70 photographs of NZ and Australian war memorials. Laurence,  Jock Phillips (who wrote the introduction to ANZAC) and Christchurch Art Gallery director Jenny Harper discussed the evolving relationship between the community and its war memorials, the changing attitudes to the memorials between the First and Second World Wars and individual monuments and sculptors as part of the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. The relationship between the community and its memorials was a constant theme of the discussion and in a broader way, Laurence’s book. Jock said they “made claims to be timeless monuments…[but] the way they are treated and meanings they have change dramatically over time.” When they were erected there was an “intense relationship between the community and the memorial”, but over time they fell into disrepair as communities developed and moved around them.  Laurence said that the disappearance of some memorials showed that “nothing is permanent. It can all go in an instant.” Jock explained that all local memorials to World War One were community funded and there was a tension between wanting to create something meaningful and sombre and wanting to create something useful in memory of the fallen. After World War Two, the government offered a subsidy for memorials that also served a practical purpose, hence the proliferation of War Memorial community halls, swimming pools and play grounds.

Jock Phillips and Jenny Harper admire a Laurence Aberhart photograph.
Jock Phillips and Jenny Harper admire a Laurence Aberhart photograph.

Laurence illustrated the session with beautiful photographs from ANZAC illustrating some of the more remarkable war memorials including:

  • A solitary solider standing guard over the now vanished hamlet of Rongahere.
  • The Mercer solider standing atop a turret of a 1860’s Land Wars gun ship.
  • Robert Hosie’s lone soldier standing on Otago Peninsula looking out on the Pacific.
  • Christchurch sculptor William Trethewey’s Kaiapoi war memorial is considered one of the best, and attendees were encouraged to visit it. Trethewey, one of the few New Zealand memorial scupltors, also designed the Cenotaph in Cathedral Square and the Captain Cook statue in Victoria Square.

The session closed with a quote that appears on several war memorials:

“From little towns in a far land we came, To save our honour and a world aflame. By little towns in a far land we sleep, And trust the world we won for you to keep.” Rudyard Kipling

Laurence Aberhart and Jock Phillips
Laurence Aberhart and Jock Phillips
ANZAC Day - Heathcote War Memorial [190-?] Christchurch City Libraries, CCL Gimblett Collection, Gimblett-0018
Anzac Day – Heathcote War Memorial  Gimblett-0018

Beyond The Veil: Historical Ghost Stories – WORD Christchurch

Book cover of The Thirteenth TaleWas anyone else frustrated that the ghost was always really just the Janitor in Scooby-Doo? Diane Setterfield, author of gothic suspense books The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman & Black was. Today in her own writing she feels that she is doing injustice to real human experience if she explains all the spooky stuff away in the end.

Diane, Rosetta Allan, author of New Zealand Victorian ghost story Purgatory and Coral Atkinson, author of Lyttelton interwar spiritualism story Passing Through joined Liam McIlvanney to discuss all things historically ghostly as part of WORD Christchurch.

Real-life events inspired Rosetta and Coral to tackle historical subjects. Coral grew up surrounded by her father’s collection of historic swords and today feels that things from the past help her to write about it. She gathers photos, archival sources and objects from the era she is writing  to illuminate scenes and eras, sometimes basing scenes from her novels on old photographs. Coral is ever trying to avoid the ‘rock in the river’ when it comes to using all this historical detail though. All the authors agreed that historical accuracy shouldn’t take readers out of the story, but needs to be seamlessly worked in.

Book cover of PurgatoryRosetta’s novel, Purgatory, was based on a piece of family history she first heard from her father, notorious for his tall-tales. When she found out the story was true, Rosetta was inspired to start work on Purgatory. During a visit to the site of the murders, Rosetta felt he presence of John and so he became the ‘hero’ of the story.

Condensing significant historical events into personal stories was a challenge that faced all the authors. Diane finds it helpful to come at big events “slightly slant-ways” and Rosetta always wants to “find the personal story” in larger things. Coral is mindful that her characters “represent hundreds of thousands of other people” and wanted to show that things “go on and on” with disasters and tragedies, they are not just forgotten once the era has ended.Book cover of Passing Through

The authors finished by citing some influential writers:

Beyond the veil: Historical ghost stories
Coral Atkinson, Rosetta Allen, and Diane Setterfield.

The Secret Diary of The Civilian: WORD Christchurch

The Civilian Logo“The Civilian is not a force for good.” Ben Uffindell, founder of The Civilian website, was very clear in his discussion with Steve Braunias that The Civilian isn’t trying to push an agenda or change the world. Steve introduced Ben as a “much loathed and somewhat loved enfant” to a crowd of WORD Christchurch attendees on Saturday night. Steve talked about his enjoyment of Ben’s work, but also his fear that Ben would “be heralded by one and all as Mr Fun-Times”.

Ben’s place on the political spectrum was an early topic of discussion: “It’s not about staying impartial, everyone has opinions…I try to be friends with everyone, which doesn’t work out at all.” Throughout his life he has held the breadth of political views so sees “why people believe what they believe.” Although he doesn’t know where he stands on the political spectrum anymore. “I’m trying to be the devil’s advocate.” He aims to “create chaos on the page” and “people will take from it what they want.” He has had people from different ends of the political spectrum interpret his articles according to their own views and beliefs: “Satire’s supposed to challenge us, but no, it doesn’t. People use it to reinforce their own ideas.”

The discussion covered various topics:

  • The Colin Craig lawsuit. Steve said that Ben “handled that with breathtaking aplomb.”
  • Free speech: Ben believes that “to be as open as possible is good for our discourse.” He worries that “People get far too concerned about things that are said and not enough about things that actually happen.”
  • Bertrand Russell: “Far be it for me to argue with Bertrand Russell, though it’s a lot easier now that he’s dead.”
  • The Canterbury earthquakes: “It had to move you and if it didn’t, you’re a bit soulless – sorry.”
  • His first parody: The Lord of the Rings while at Intermediate.
  • Other projects: A novel about lepers that he hopes to complete one day.

The most surprising quote of the night came when Ben claimed “I feel like the Pope.” He explained that he sees why things are funny, then has to try and communicate that information to the wider world. He did a good job on Saturday night.

Fiercely Hopeful – Anis Mojgani at WORD Christchurch

I’d never heard of Anis Mojgani before, yet when I was looking through the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival programme the title of his session grabbed me: Fiercely Hopeful. It reminded me of one of my favourite quotes:

And I said to myself: That’s true, hope needs to be like barbed wire to keep out despair, hope must be a minefield. (Yehuda Amichai)

It’s a quote that’s been banging about in the back of my mind since the earthquake. In post-quake Christchurch, hope has to be fierce.

Anis is a two-time US National Poetry Slam Champion and winner of the International World Cup Poetry Slam. Promising, I thought, so I looked up one of Anis’s poems and read it through. It was one of his most acclaimed poems, Shake the Dust, and started with the line – this is for the fat girls. I was hooked. It’s a powerful, passionate poem written down; hearing it out loud was incredible.

This is for the two-year-olds who cannot be understood because they speak half-English and half-god. Shake the dust.

Anis had plenty of fans in the audience; fans whose excitement spilled over, fans who’d flown in from Auckland to see him, fans of all ages and genders. There were new fans who had first heard him read earlier in the festival and wanted more, old fans who had watched his poetry on YouTube over and over and wanted more. He performed Here I Am, This is how she makes me feel, Razi’s Lemon Tree, Galumph, My library has seventeen books, Shake the Dust and at the request of the audience, Come Closer.

He talked about Christchurch and the links between us and his home of New Orleans. Right now, from August 23rd to September 3rd, is the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina; Anis empathises with what Christchurch is going through in our own journey of survival and recovery. He mentioned a similar serendipitous note: his birthday is the 22nd of February,  a date carved in the history of our city. He spoke of the dark times that as humans we all go through, and how it always feels like we are the only ones to have ever felt this pain, how unlikely it seems that anyone else is suffering in the same way as we are suffering. He spoke of coming out the other end of the darkest times.

I am like you.
I too at times am filled with fear.
But like a hallway we must find the strength to walk through it.
Walk through this with me.
Walk through this with me.

(From ‘Come Closer’)

Anis loves words and it shows in his art. He is approachable, warm, magnetic, and at the signing table he asks your name like he genuinely wants to know you. He’s definitely an artist, and has a real skill for connecting with people. The book table completely sold out of his books.

After the session, still buzzing from the contagious passion of the audience and the vividness and generosity of his presence, I walked back through the city to the bus exchange and thought: this is a strange and difficult city we live in, but I am fiercely hopeful about our future here.

And questions are the only answers we need to know that we are alive as I am when I have the mind of a child
Asking, why is two plus three always equal to five?
Where do people go to when they die?
What made the beauty of the moon?
And the beauty of the sea?
Did that beauty make you?
Did that beauty make me?
Will that make me something?
Will I be something?
Am I something?

And the answer comes: already am, always was, and I still have time to be.

(From ‘Here I Am’)

If you’re interested in spoken-word or slam poetry check out:

WORD Christchurch