The last time I heard CK Stead was a few years ago at the Auckland Writers Festival. He was interviewed with his daughter Charlotte Grimshaw and they played off each other nicely. I didn’t really enjoy this latest session where C.K Stead was interviewed by Paul Millar, and in hindsight I was probably not the best person to be writing this blog, because a) I haven’t read the book Shelf Lifeb) I am not the most literary person c) I was not reading New Zealand literature in the 50s and 60s and d) I haven’t studied New Zealand Literature. If you fulfilled all or at least some of the above criteria then it was probably entertaining. I didn’t get the jokes and I didn’t always know who they were talking about.
Perhaps because Paul Millar has an academic background there was quite a lot of talk about the early days in the English Department at the Auckland University. All of our luminaries feature, all referred to by their last names – Gee, Shadbolt, Duggan. Fairburn, Baxter and Curnow.(As an aside I always find this last name things a bit odd – do we do it with women?) The North Shore seemed a hotbed of literary genius, and references were made to the odd feud and disagreement. It must have been intense. Curnow and Stead lived in the same street and over the years critiqued each others work via their respective letterboxes.
Things jumped around a bit, from University days to travel, opinions on food, (yes, likes it) euthanasia, (would be good to have a pill especially if dementia hit) how and when he writes, (keeps office hours) and favourite places, (Auckland then London). A question was asked about women writers as they didn’t exactly feature. Janet Frame was a good friend and he preferred Marilyn Duckworth to her sister Fleur Adcock, I’m unsure as to why.
It would be interesting to hear other opinions on this session. I found it bitsy and not particularly illuminating. I suspect others will have enjoyed it much more than me as they would have had more appreciation of the authors and characters of this important time of our literary history.
Fiona Kidman’s latest book All Day at the Movies explores what it means to be a woman in New Zealand. It’s an episodic novel set over six decades. She explores where families were at and where they are going now.
Family is important to me as an only child I was often an observer looking in on families.
But she also says “I try not to put my family into books”.
This novel was inspired by the sight of abandoned tobacco kilns. Her father grew tobacco in KeriKeri and the memories of the Nicotiana scent drew her to setting her central character in the tobacco field of Motueka. The novel features a lot of pregnancies – as Owen Marshall observes, some more welcome than others. One of her characters doesn’t know who her father is.
Fiona acknowledges pregnancy is a huge issue in women’s lives. She is an adoptive mother herself, and acknowledges adoption was not handled well in the past. Recently her novels are set around a central historical character – but in this novel she wanted to say something about politics, how decisions made in Wellington affect people’s lives.
Fiona has always been a political animal. She was part of the 1981 Springbok tour movement as explored in her novel Beside the Dark Pool. Exploring the social context her characters inhabit over the decades gives her a vehicle to say something about how Wellington decisions affect their lives.
Looking at her characters as they deal with illegitimacy, estrangement, and abuse you may think she has a negative view of life and of men. But she says “I love men”. There are at least 5 positive men in the book, even though it may not seem that men come out well.
“I have had a lucky life” one of her characters says in the novel (and she observes it of her own life) which ends on an optimistic note. She looks at the circumstances of her characters and why things happen without making judgments. Authentic characters are important – how real people deal with things and how it affects them in 20, 30, 40 years time. Her characters become very real to her – they stand at the kitchen bench and come for rides with her in the car. By the time she sits down to write a novel they have their own voice which has to be listened to. Sometimes she is ready to let them go after a novel, and sometimes they don’t want to go away and reappear in another form like her character Jessie Sandal from Songs of the Violet Café.
Fiona has always been a feminist writer as is evident in A breed of Women. She sees herself not as a woman’s writer but a writer writing for women. She first thought of herself as a writer as a 22-year-old in the 1960s. It was in an era when it was embarrassing to be pregnant. She had worked at Rotorua Library and moved to Rotorua High School library when she married her husband who also worked there. When she got pregnant, students remarked “Got her up the duff eh Sir!”, leading to a request for her to leave the school. Such were the expectations of the era.
She left and started writing – submitting a play for a competition. Her play evoked the comment that it must have been written by the dirtiest minded young woman in New Zealand.
I felt I did know stuff about being a woman that a middle-aged man in Wellington seemed not to know.
Fiona often struggled with expectations:
What am I doing sitting at the kitchen table, buying the kids clothes not preserving hundreds of jars and doing this.
She worked as a secretary of PEN and the NZ Book Council and hoped to help authors think of writing as working.
Her favourite genre is short stories but they don’t sell a lot of books and she loves poetry but working in other genres is necessary. She made as much money working in television in a month as writing in a couple of years.
Through working in television, she learnt to see as you would through the camera
through radio work she learn to listen especially to the silences
through journalism she learnt to ask questions
All have been useful in her writing work. Poetry is not so much thinking about the audience more spontaneous.
Chaired by journalist Donna Miles-Mojab, the citizens of Christchurch and others from abroad sat and listened closely to first hand accounts from individuals who have made perilous and nerve shattering journeys away from conflict zones, to what is now their home – New Zealand.
It was a treat to be listening to such compelling narratives while sitting within The Chamber of the newly and beautifully designed The Piano.
Somalian national Dr Hassam Ibrahim, and Afghan national Abbas Nazari spoke of their manifold hardships leaving the places their families knew, to eventually arrive via boats, planes, trucks and on foot, to New Zealand’s shores, to be faced with radically different surroundings and cultural sensibilities.
They spoke of their New Zealand experience with great gratitude but also lamented leaving their homelands for a place where they may not always be understood as people. It’s not every day that you get the privilege of hearing first hand accounts such as these. It’s staggering to think that RIGHT NOW over 3.2 million desperate humans are seeking asylum throughout the earth! Forced to leave homes, friends and familiar environments to make huge transitions abroad.
“Double the Quota” campaigner Murdoch Stephens made the case for New Zealand to lift its refugee quota, and discussed the many positive economic and cultural impacts of resettling refugees in New Zealand. It was a compelling case – given that “NZ’s refugee quota has not grown since 1987”, which is pretty lame in contrast to our Australian cousins who “currently take more than three times as many quota refugees and asylum seekers as NZ per capita”.
Roger, In love with these times is your personal experience, and it is about your role in the New Zealand music industry. There is a real sense of ‘being there’ in a certain time and place. A lot has been written about the music, so I’d like to focus more on place and – since you’re also an avid reader, on your love of books and libraries.
You write that during your upbringing “Reading became central” to your life. Tell us about some books you recommend.
David Stubbs: Future Days (Faber & Faber, 2014). This is a great exploration of what was an insular but fragmented (it happened all over Germany rather than in one locale) musical phenomena. I love the music and this book helped me make sense of where it came from (German youth rebelling against their Nazi tainted parents and teachers) and how it happened and it sent me back to listen to all of the music again. Can, Neu, Harmoniam Amol Duul, et al.
Geoff Chapple: Terrain (Random House, 2015). This is really a fantastic read for anyone curious about why our country looks the way it does. Landforms are the fascinating dynamic basic structures that shape our lives in New Zealand and learning to read them is immensely rewarding.
Rob Chapman: Psychedelia and Other Colours (Faber & Faber, 2015). This is my current music read and it’s very informative and delightfully opinionated. The ex Glaxo Babies singer – and now music writing academic – describes the very different development of psychedelic music in the USA and the UK and isn’t afraid to shoot down some longstanding myths and reputations. It’s a straight shooting and unglamorous look at one of the key musical strands that defines the 1960s. I found the section on The Beatles particularly rewarding.
Richard King: How Soon Is Now. This is about the development of the independent record labels in the UK and the USA that catered to the exploding number of bands that formed during and after the punk and helped connect them to the new audience that appeared alongside them. An erudite entertaining read about the rise and almost inevitable fall of of labels such as Postcard, Rough Trade, Blast First and Mute. Flying Nun isn’t discussed but fits right in there with what was happening internationally at the time.
You grew up in Aranui and went to Shirley Boys High and you write in your book about your fond memories of going to New Brighton Library every Saturday with your family. What place have libraries played in your life?
I love books and reading and tend to look for them in a number of different places. Bookshops selling new books obviously have the latest releases but second hand book shops have otherwise unavailable gems and oddments and I will travel considerable distances to attend book fairs.
Libraries have a different selection again and remarkable ones at that. I love to browse. As a kid we went to the old New Brighton library on Shaw Ave on a Saturday while my mother did her weekly shopping. It didn’t have a big selection but did have a rotating range of books that came out from the central library in town. I got started reading pretty tame Willard Price boys adventures (one of the key characters dies in one of them by getting his foot stuck in a giant clam, or did he fall into a volcano?) before moving on to John Wyndham and Fred Hoyle and other English science fiction writers. A road that took me all the way to J.G. Ballard who I greatly admire for the quality and originality of his ideas.
My taste in fiction is rather broad, Nabokov (skip the overly literary Lolita and check out one of the greatest books ever written, Pale Fire or the funniest, Pnin) and there are a number of New Zealand writers that I have followed including Maurice Gee, Emily Perkins and Damien Wilkins. I mix up my fiction reading with plenty of non-fiction. I read a good amount of travel writing (including Colin Thubron, Richard O’Hanlon (Trawler is especially good), Nick Dyer, but the best is Norman Lewis amongst a mass of other stuff including books about music, psychology, food, nature, history, geology and art.
I remember finding the Thames and Hudson William S. Rubin’s Dada & Surrealism art book one Saturday at the New Brighton library and that really opened up my mind to what existed beyond my closeted Aranui existence. My father must have been horrified. He certainly was when I started listening to punk rock a couple of years later.
With such a vastly changed landscape post-quake it is great to have the memories – an archive if you will – of the people and places in Christchurch that you document in your book (music venues, your various Flying Nun offices) to orientate readers in the city. You used to work at the Record Factory and near Shand’s Emporium too. You write of your memories of working in ‘the Square’, a centre city so vastly altered now, and you share your memories of music venues and music stores in Christchurch. How do you feel seeing sites in Christchurch where you used to work and play? Post-quake where do you find yourself drawn to with so much changed? Where do you ‘find’ yourself when you come to Christchurch now? Is that even possible now?
Record Factory was on Colombo St. The first Flying Nun office was on Hereford Street next to Shands. I’ve been lost in central Christchurch the last couple of times I have visited. I don’t think people outside Christchurch understand the devastation unless they see it for themselves. Surely the word “munted” must has been coined to describe what has happened in Christchurch. The physical central city I grew up exploring and then working and living in seems to have completely gone.
Fortunately the people remain and I have huge admiration for those who have done so with the clear intention of rebuilding the city. Where do I go when I am in town visiting my mother? I’ve always loved the Museum, Botanical Gardens and Art Gallery and make time to check out them out, to see what is new but mainly to be reassured by what is the same. I find those reconnections amongst the mass dislocations rather vital.
You talk about what drove you as a fan was the feeling that a lot of the music would have been lost if it wasn’t recorded. It seems hard to imagine Flying Nun was such a fruitful endeavour without cellphones and the internet, with the biggest excitement being the fax machine. What aspects of this ‘old school’ way do you think made Flying Nun a success in a way that wouldn’t happen in today’s high tech, globally connected world and ‘record me!’ culture? Any special piece of advice for budding music industry entrepreneurs today?
Despite all the technological advances I think what was always hard has become even harder to achieve. A new label needs to be working with bands that are new, exciting and unique. There has to be some momentum and some early sales to get the cashflow moving and confidence up.
This is something that normally grows out of the development of a scene. A scene is a localised outburst of communal creativity normally bourne out of geographic and socio economic isolation. Bands starting up and supporting each other and swapping ideas and making and playing new kinds of music which is what happened in both Christchurch and Dunedin in the early 1980s.
The internet connects people and makes everything totally absolutely available but works against that insular hothouse effect by accelerating the ongoing homogenised fragmentation of music. It’s harder to create music that is different enough to grab an audience’s attention let alone pay for it so a band or artist can start building a career.
Can you recommend any music or artists released out of Flying Nun today or out of Christchurch in general who have taken your interest?
Christchurch is where it all started for me. The Gordons who somehow later became Bailter Space. The Pin Group were special. The Bats are a fine example of musical evolution. From being very quietly country influenced to becoming very subtley krautrock flecked. A brilliant band that endure despite the non evolutionary force that is fashion. I really rate T54. I can’t wait to see Zen Mantra in a couple of weeks time at The Others Way in Auckland. And as always I am a huge fan of The Terminals and very much looking forward to eventually checking out their recently developing “side project” Dark Matter.
You mention in your book you like to cook and are an avid cookbook collector. Share with us some of your favourite cookbooks.
I like to cook and I have a big collection of cookbooks although there seem to be so many published these days.
Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich’s Honey and Co (Saltyard Books, 2014). My wife came back from London with this book and its Israeli middle eastern cooking is very much in the style of the excellent Ottolenghi books. I see a connection here to what first enthused me about cooking in the mid 1980s, Claudia Roden’s television series Middle Eastern Cooking.
Chris Maynard and Bill Scheller’s Manifold Destiny (Villard Books, 1989). I have never cooked anything out of this book but love the idea that I could wrap up dinner in foil and cook it on my car engine as I belt along the motorway listening to The Clean’s ‘Point That Thing’.
Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham’s The Prawn Cocktail Years (Macmillan, 1997). These two excellent food writers get together to give the best quality recipes for former British comfort food favourites such as Chicken Kiev, Spaghetti Bolognese, Shepherds Pie, Lasagne al Forno and our Sunday brunch favourite, Kedgeree. Yum.
Share a surprising fact about yourself.
I have a number of loose amateur enthusiasms and geology, cartography and stamp collecting are among them. I’m very keen on volcanos and have good sized collections of postcards and souvenir teaspoons featuring them. Yes, I am strangely attracted to cardboard but I no longer collect it. Otherwise, it’s books that consume most of my spare time, seeking them out and then reading them.
Canadian Elizabeth Hay has to write about what means most to her. In her latest book His whole life, she writes of the close mother-son bond. As the marriage comes apart, the mother-son bond deepens. In her earlier novel Late nights on air she revisits her years as “An old radio hack”.
On the publishing scene
New Zealand authors will sympathize with her comments that publishers aren’t always aware how much Canadians interested in Canadian tales. Publishers want books to be set outside Canada with an eye to foreign sales.
“He knows he’s not the smartest guy in the world” unlike Harper. He’s done some things like the Montreal Gay Pride march, does he overdo it? – Sometimes. Under former president Harper, Canada was very tar oil sands orientated. Under Trudeau it is different – landscape and environment is at the heart of the country now.
On the landscape
You can’t live in Canada without having a sense of it because there is so much of it and a need of landscape which is at the heart of our writing”.
It’s too early to say that Speaking Proud was my favourite WORD session, since it’s the first I’ve attended so far, but for now it is. First time I’ve been back in the COCA gallery since 2010 (for shame!) and it was filled with cool, talented young people with great hair. I was as impressed by the local poets as I was by international writers David Levithan and Ivan E. Coyote. I highly recommend attending their other sessions this weekend, and also supporting the amazing work of Q-topia, Canterbury’s local LGBTQIA+ youth organisation.
Isla Martin (master of words):
the thing is, I know God
and she doesn’t want us to clap our hands together in prayer,
she wants us to clap and keep clapping for every one of us still fighting and still here
Sophie Rea (funny, heartfelt):
If I ever have a daughter, I will dress her in rainbows.
Later when she’s older I’ll let her pull her wardrobe apart
and let her decide what to wear herself
and she’ll go to kindy in stripes and spots,
pastels and glitter, superhero masks and fairy wings
if she wants.
She’ll go to kindy in cut-off jeans and sneakers, monster truck t-shirts
or pink dresses and clip-on earrings or a mixture of it all
if she wants.
(I will make sure she is warm.)
Kimberley Holmes (tongue in cheek and heart in mouth):
Should I cut off my hair, be a better stereotype
do I owe you, be a better warning of what I happen to be
which team I play?
I’m not some teen boy’s party trick.
I wasn’t playing a game.
David Levithan, reading from Two Boys Kissing:
Love is so painful, how could you ever wish it on anybody?
And love is so essential, how could you ever stand in its way?
Ivan E. Coyote, reading from their upcoming book:
I’d have these panic dreams about boys waiting under the backless wooden stairs that led into the portable trailer next to the school where my kindergarten class was held.
I’d have these sweaty, fear-stained dreams of laughing boys looking up my skirt and I couldn’t even kick them properly, because have you ever tried to do a high kick in a long dress? The harder, the higher you kick the faster your one raised leg pulls the other leg out from under you, hot tears on my cheek, my bare thigh all torn up by the gravel and I am quite sure I know many people, even in this room tonight who have perfected a technique to account for the high kick in a long dress phenomenon. But I never did.
If you’re upset you missed out on these great words, don’t despair! Sophie Rea, David Levithan and Ivan E. Coyote are speaking at a number of other events this weekend, listed below. I look forward to seeing you there.
Alok Jha is the science correspondent for Britain’s ITV News. Before that, he did the same job at the Guardian for a decade, writing news, features, comment and presenting the award-winning Science Weekly podcast. He has also reported live from Antarctica and presented many BBC TV and radio programmes.
What are you looking forward to doing in Christchurch?
Seeing it for the first time! I’ve heard about the city’s beauty, I’m looking forward to walking the streets and soaking up the atmosphere.
What do you think about libraries?
Some of the most important spaces in any civilised place. A place to imagine, dream and discover.
Among the first few events at this year’s epic WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival was “CAN BOOKS CHANGE THE WORLD?” This serious question arouses all manner of responses: Books ARE powerful! They HAVE changed the world! We cry. With fists in the air!
However, this intimate evening explored what drives writers to write in the first place – an important question – given that what we write can ripple out across earth. So, to traverse the topic of world-changing written thought, we were treated to a panel of clever literary people – children’s and short story writer Kate De Goldi, journalist and playwright Victor Rodger, and academic, writer and literary critic John Freeman – all of whom have won various awards and accolades.
The featured writers were probed with questions about “why they write”. John Freeman began by stating that you have to keep yourself in check :
If you start thinking you can change the world, then you will have a rough time”. You’ll prime yourself for disappointment.
Therefore, you “write in the hope that people will be able to identity with you”. Hopefully, you can tap into something that touches them by seeking to appreciate their worldview.
BUT, he went on to warn “there is no such thing as apolitical writing”, you either have to take a position on certain issues, or you take positions by default. There is no middle ground.
Kate De Goldi seemed to concur with these sentiments, stating that New Zealand citizens tend to have a problem “speaking truth to power” and taking provocative (and sometimes) unpopular positions and entering into heated discourse! She emphasized that writing is about “being a responsible citizen”, and that “if people dont read there is no democracy”. Therefore, we need to back ourselves.
Victor added to the discussion by revealing his own impressions of life growing up as part of a minority group – as a young Samoan New Zealander, most Kiwi books, plays and shows did not embody his point of view as a young man wrestling with his identity. So, “he really wanted to get his own impressions of life out there”, “to challenge cultural and racial stereotypes”. Which is critical, as his work has added important dimensions to New Zealand’s artistic scene and prompted Kiwis think about who we are as a society.
It was an edifying evening, I found myself taking in this good advice from those who have hacked their way through the literary jungle. Its good to be reminded that with the privilege of free literary thought comes responsibility. And sometimes, we wind up writing something world changing!