A Feast of Francis – An hour with Francis Spufford

Book event blog posts have a formula: introducing the author, setting the scene and then a chronological or thematic account of the literary chit-chat. But I’m feeling rebellious, so no entrée, no mains and straight to dessert. What is Francis Spufford going to serve up next on the fiction front?

Francis Spufford
Francis Spufford at The Piano. Wednesday 7 March 2018. Flickr WORD7March2018-IMG_6594

He is currently working on a new novel (hurrah!) set in South London and starting in the year 1944 when a German V2 rocket fell on a branch of Woolworths in New Cross killing 168 people. Each chapter is set in a different year, so far he has got to 1949, and the volume and diversity of research has been hugely challenging. To date he has had to get his head around the intricacies of lino printing, 1970s reel-to-reel technology, what working on a suicide prevention helpline would be like, Nazi skinheads and being a female backing singer in Los Angeles in 1979…whew!

Back on book blog script – Francis Spufford is a non-fiction writer who has moved into novel writing to great acclaim, winning both the Costa Book Award for first novel and the Ondaatje prize. He appeared as part of New Zealand Festival Writers & Readers in association with the WORD Christchurch. Chris Moore was in the interviewer chair at The Piano and the audience was well-dressed and largely mature female in makeup.

Asked about his late-in-life move into fiction, Francis Spufford replied that as an academic teaching creative writing, at Goldsmiths University of London, he felt ashamed giving advice and guidance on writing fiction without have dipped his own pen in the fiction ink.

He set himself an ambitious agenda for his first novel as he wanted to include: “a duel, a rooftop chase, a trial scene, a love story, bone-crunching violence, rude sex, a mystery and jokes” plus set it in the 18th Century New York and with at least a nod and a wink towards the language and style of the new 18th Century novel. “A mass of incompatible pleasures now but quite in keeping with the period” where “serious intentions and low pleasures could be stuck in together”. It did involve compromise and became essentially a 21st Century novel in an 18th Century manner but one which allows the reader to feel a sense of time travel but without the style being too verbally off-putting.

Francis Spufford and Chris Moore
Francis Spufford and Chris Moore at The Piano. Flickr WORD7March2018-IMG_6587

He included lots of authentic 18th Century slang. Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English in particular delivered an abundance of “wonderful, elaborately gross stuff”.

Setting the novel in historic New York was also important to him as he was drawn to the satisfying reversal of the city past and present:

  • The sheer tininess of the place then — some 7,000 people — versus the densely populated urban craziness of today.
  • The fact old New York was parochial versus its current cosmopolitan outlook.
  • That it was pious, Protestant, and ethnically limited compared with today’s predominantly secular and ethnically complex society.

Mr Smith, the mysterious central character, is a city-slicker — a London sophisticate travelling to the small and provincial New York “a Jane Austen sized village”. This New York is highly politicised and on surface level patriotically Royalist but the reader is aware that change is coming and that British influence is waning.

Francis Spufford was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about early US history, his retention of information researched some time ago but instantly recalled was enviable! He drew parallels between early New York and the US today saying “paranoia about tyranny has featured throughout its history” but he also lamented the topicality of his novel. He hadn’t anticipated Donald Trump and the focus on modern America’s paranoia and darkness.

Francis Spufford also spoke about his Christian faith and the process of writing Unapologetic — his response to Dawkins’ God Delusion. His aim he said “was to write a book that wouldn’t convert but would make belief recognisable to the reader” that faith was not “superstition or madness but meeting some human need”. He was anxious about creating a backlash as he wrote it not as “a good-tempered argument between faith and atheism” but in a more pugnacious attempt to show “that religion didn’t belong in a zoo of weird things but was a human norm”.

This was a bookishly warm and entertaining hour and if you haven’t read Francis Spufford,  pull finger and get on with it!

CoverCoverCoverCover

More about Francis Spufford

 

Harry Giles: Doer of Things (WORD Christchurch event, Tues 13 March 7.30pm at Space Academy)

I must admit to some trepidation about reporting on a Poetry Reading. How does one describe a Poetry Reading to those that weren’t there? Even one by a flamboyant Scottish poet who has travelled halfway across the world.

Harry Josephine Giles originally came from the Orkney Islands but they did not elaborate from which island other than to tell us that their island had 700 people and six churches of various denominations. Obviously, a small island northeast of Scotland was never going to contain nor satisfy a restless, creative spirit like Harry’s so they headed for the big city and now reside in Edinburgh.

I vacillated on whether I should take notes, but I thought that would be a buzz kill when I was trying to listen and enjoy the poetry in the moment.

Harry started off reading some poems in English and then went on to read some in Scots. If you want to see what Scots poetry looks like, check out Whit tae write nou?

I profess ignorance and I have no excuse since I am descended from Scots, but I was unaware that three languages were spoken in Scotland as Harry enlightened us. I knew they spoke English (the language of their colonisers) and Scots Gaelic (related to the other Celtic dialects of Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany), but I hadn’t considered Scots as a separate language. I’d thought of it as a variation of English. But Harry put us straight, explaining that Scots has those Norse origins that English shares.

Harry kindly read their Scots versions of poems then followed with the English translation, so to speak.

Although tired after their whirlwind tour of Aotearoa (nine gigs in seven days in New Plymouth and Wellington), Harry gave an energetic performance. It was easy to see that Harry works in the performance and theatre arenas because they enlivened their poetry with modulations of their voice and gestures. Harry has a beguiling shyness that peeps out from time to time.

Harry read a small series of poems in which they had engendered their fears and anxieties through the persona of a female military drone. You can hear some of the sequence on Soundcloud.

Harry was introduced by Ray Shipley who is a Christchurch-based poet, comedian, youth worker and founder of the Faultline Poetry Collective. Ray made an able MC and general crowd-exciter, but Harry had the audience engaged from their first poem and many of us were sad to bid Harry farewell after only an hour and a half.

More Harry Giles

Vale, Peter Temple (& Jack Irish)

It’s always a sad day when you hear of the death of someone whose work you have appreciated over the years. For me, this time, it’s Peter Temple; Australian crime author who died from cancer at his home in Ballarat on the 8th of March, 2018 at the age of 71.

Peter Temple was born in South Africa but immigrated in 1977 due to his anti-apartheid political stance. He moved to Germany at first and then two years later he arrived in Australia and began on his journey to becoming one of Australia’s great writers – and it was lucky for Australia!

CoverCoverCoverCoverCoverCover

He’s most famous for his books featuring Jack Irish; the loveable, roguish lawyer/drinker/debt-collector who likes a flutter on the nags and to prop up the bar at his local Fitzroy watering hole. The character of Jack Irish and the excellent use of language to convey the very matter-of-fact communications of the Australian working class male made these books a tremendous success and highly influential in the Australian crime writing genre. The books are entwined with plot twists and intrigue, corruption and politics, are very well paced, and perfectly capture the social nuances of Australian life. As do the television series that they have been turned into, featuring a who’s who of Australian acting and Guy Pearce as the main man Jack Irish. The producers really nailed the casting, the style, feel, and sense of place and the books really were celebrated in this particular telly treatment!

There are four books in the Jack Irish series, all worth reading but begin with Bad Debts. The tv series is available on DVD and to stream on Lightbox.

Peter Temple’s other books also saw critical acclaim. In 2010 he landed Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin Award, for his novel Truth – sequel to The Broken Shore. For a crime writer to win the Miles Franklin was quite a coup and his acceptance speech was trademark self-deprecation and wry humour, inviting the judging panel to “…take the flack for giving the Miles Franklin to a crime writer”. His third book in this new series has not been presented to his editor as yet, but perhaps sometime on the future another Australian literary great will take the final steps and finish the story and we will see the results. Possibly a posthumous award to go with his Miles Franklin, his five Ned Kelly Awards, and his Duncan Lawrie Dagger!?

For now I suggest we kick back, appreciate the fact that our region has produced another great writer, and for fans I suggest a nostalgic re-read.

Or if you’ve never tried his books before, get stuck in, mate!

Vale, Peter Temple.

New view for tukutuku

Kaokao (variation 2), currently on loan to Christchurch Art Gallery

If you happen to visit the Christchurch Art Gallery in the next few months you’ll see a piece of Christchurch City Libraries on display.

Ten of the library’s tukutuku panels are on temporary loan as part of an exhibition put together by assistant curator Nathan Pohio called ‘Moroki‘. This word refers to something with an ongoing nature and expresses continuity. In this instance the focus is on historic and contemporary Māori artworks that offer insight into the relationships between Māori art and architecture, and is part of a wider exhibition highlighting 19th and 20th century New Zealand art currently on display at the art gallery.

This is not the first time the tukutuku panels have had a temporary change of home.

Created in 2001 as part of a community art project led by Ngā Puna Waihanga, 19 tukutuku panels were installed in Ngā Pounamu Māori, the Māori resource area on the 2nd floor of the Central Library in 2002. 

After the library building was damaged in the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes the panels were removed and eventually distributed to a number of libraries around the network. The tukutuku panels currently on loan to the art gallery were previously housed at the Linwood and Aranui libraries. When Tūranga, the new central library building currently under construction in Cathedral Square, opens the tukutuku panels will again be brought together and displayed with the Māori collection.

Tukutuku panels
Tukutuku panels on display in Ngā Pounamu Māori, Central Library, 26 July 2002. Flickr CE-Refurb-MaoriPanels

The ten tukutuku panels currently on display at the art gallery sit across from paintings of Māori architecture and carvings, and the colours, shapes and designs on the panels really have an opportunity to shine when placed alongside other artworks.

If you want to know more about how, why and by whom the library’s tukutuku panels were created check out our Puāwaitanga o te Ringa – Fruits of our busy hands resource for photos of the panels along with explanations of the different designs and their meanings.