We all look forward to Christmas, don’t we? Well, maybe not everyone does. As well as family gatherings, stuffing ourselves with turkey, Uncle (insert name here) with one too many glasses of bubbly aboard regaling us with heroic tales of his long-gone youth and opening presents, as with all things in life, Christmas has its downside.
The struggle to write and post all our Christmas cards before the NZ Post cut-off dates. After all, no one likes to look callous and uncaring at Christmas. Or the harassed shoppers fighting the crowds to complete their present buying list. Oh no, Ballantynes have sold the last Nativity scene doily that I wanted to give to deeply-religious Aunty Doris!
But if it is all looking a little stressful, take a moment out of your busy pre-Christmas schedule to enjoy these offerings from the library and you’ll be feeling better in no time.
You can stream some music to counteract those sickly carols pumped out at your local mall. Charley Jordan sings Christmas Christmas Blues, Christmas Tree Blues, No Christmas Blues and the Santa ClausBlues so this is a man who knows about the bittersweet nature of the festive season.
Or perhaps it is something to suck the saccharine out of your children you seek.
And when you are sprawled exhausted on the couch on Christmas Eve, spook yourself gently or chuckle into Yuletide with the following:
Katherine Mansfield was born as Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp on the 14th of October 1888, into a prominent family in Wellington. Her father, Harold Beauchamp, became the chairman of the Bank of New Zealand (then, curiously enough, owned by New Zealanders). He had been born in Australia, but moved to New Zealand with his family when he was three years old. At the age of 65, he was made a knight of the realm. Katherine’s mother was Annie Beauchamp, whose brother would marry the daughter of Richard Seddon, former Prime Minister of New Zealand. This marriage wove the Beauchamp family into New Zealand’s prominent social circles.
When Katherine was five, her family moved from Thorndon to the then country suburb of Karori for health reasons. Katherine spent the happiest years of her childhood in Karori. Her short story Prelude published in 1918, was inspired by her memories of this happy time.
Mansfield’s first published her short stories in 1900 in a society magazine called New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Journal.
Mansfield expressed a feeling of alienation in her journals. She became disillusioned with New Zealand because of her observations of Māori being repressed by the Pakeha settlers. This is probably why Māori characters are often portrayed in a positive light in a story such as How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped, first published in 1912.
At age fifteen, Mansfield moved to London to attend school there. When she returned to New Zealand, aged nineteen, she began to write short stories prolifically. She was determined to become a professional writer and returned to London at the age of 21.
Financially, Mansfield was sustained by an annual allowance from her father of one hundred pounds. But Mansfield was a woman ahead of her time and led an unconventional lifestyle, being bisexual and becoming pregnant while unmarried. Her mother was horrified and raced over to London (well, as quickly as you could race in 1909) where she dispatched Katherine to Bad Wörishofen, a spa town in Bavaria. Mansfield miscarried soon after arriving in Bad Wörishofen and, to compound her woes, her mother cut Katherine out of her will.
However, her stay in Germany was to enhance Mansfield’s writing career. Here she first encountered the works of Anton Chekhov, who is considered to be among the greatest writers of short fiction in history. Her experiences of Germany produced the stories which became her first published collection In a German Pension published in 1911.
Mansfield was profoundly affected by the death of her younger brother, Leslie Beauchamp, who was killed fighting in France in 1915. “Chummie”, as the family called him, had been very close to Katherine in their childhood. Perhaps mindful of this shadow of mortality, Mansfield wrote prolifically from 1916 onwards.
This was to prove prescient as Mansfield was diagnosed with tuberculosis in December 1917. In order to lessen the effects of her disease, Mansfield went abroad to Europe, staying in France and then Italy. During this time she published two more collections, Bliss and Other Stories (1920) then The Garden Party and Other Stories (1922).
Katherine Mansfield spent the latter part of her life seeking unorthodox treatments for her tuberculosis, but, unfortunately, she died on the 9th of January, 1923 from a pulmonary haemorrhage. Mansfield left a lot of unpublished stories behind, but her former husband, the editor, John Middleton Murry, took it upon himself to gather and publish several posthumous collections of her work.
Mansfield’s legacy is writ large in the New Zealand literary landscape. Our most prestigious literary residency is the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship which all the big knobs of Kiwi literature have enjoyed since it was inaugurated in 1970. Many a grand poobah of Kiwi writing has resided for six months in Menton, France, at the Villa Isola Bella, enjoying the freedom of writing without the financial pressure of the everyday world. Katherine Mansfield lived and wrote at the Villa Isola Bella in the latter years of her life.
I hate to end on a slightly sour note, but I wonder in New Zealand where we have had several highly talented short story writers like Mansfield, Frank Sargeson and Owen Marshall, why the short story writer seems to be regarded somehow as a lesser being and not taken seriously until they publish a novel. We have let the novel become the Olympus to which all writers should aspire. Some writers like Mansfield clearly felt their talent lies in writing the shorter form fiction. Living, as she did, far away from the claustrophobic literary milieu of New Zealand, clearly Mansfield never felt any pressure to write a novel but she produced a myriad of smaller literary treasures.
Kate Sylvester introduced the two poets and her assertion that poets were the antidote to a world out of kilter brought rousing applause.
It’s not an easy thing to report on a poetry reading. You listen with different ears to poetry than you would to a speaker.
Being tagged with the epithet “poetry stars”, might bring with it an unfair burden of expectation and if Hera Lindsay Bird, who was first up, felt that she didn’t show it as she appeared quite at ease on the stage. The poems she read were generally dealing with love and sex, but often in a tangential and quirky way. She read the poems: Jealousy, Love is like laying down in a major intersection, Monica (about the character, Monica Geller, from the sitcom, Friends), Da Vinci Code, Six Seasons of the Nanny and Pyramid Scheme.
Now, I confess, I’m a sucker for humour in poetry because poetry can often take itself very seriously. There was a strong vein of humour running through all the poems that Bird read and the audience chuckled a lot during her reading.
I’ve read that the poet, Lord Byron, was treated like a rock star in his day with people, mainly women, queueing for hours outside booksellers when Byron released a new book of poetry. He died a rock star’s kind of death too, dying at Missolonghi, aged 36, while helping the Greeks battle the Turks for their independence.
Perhaps Hera Lindsay Bird will revive the “poet as rock star” phenomenon if the reception of her eponymous debut is anything to go by.
Hollie McNish came to poetry fame via that most 21st century medium, YouTube. A little older and a little more experienced than her reading companion, McNish read poems that traversed her life from childhood to pregnancy in her thirties. She read the poems: Yanking (a variation on what she claimed was a Kiwi-ism “giving a wristy”), Call On Me (about the nature of friendships changing as we get older), Hiccups (for her daughter), A Dead Pig I Mean (about a bizarre ritual David Cameron indulged in at private school), Wow (about her one-year old daughter admiring her naked body in a mirror), Sex (about not wanting sex for six-and-a-half months after her daughter was born, Bricks (talking with her 92-year-old grandmother about what turned Hollie on) and McNish ended with a poignant poem dedicated to her Grandad called Cherry Pie with its echoes of post-war trauma.
I’ll be first to put my hand up and say that I am all for the popularising of poetry (being a poet myself and wanting to get my books out there in the hands of poetry readers), but there are still ivory tower elements fiercely guarding poetry for the elitist few as evidenced by the poet, Rebecca Watts, refusing to review Plum, McNish’s latest poetry collection, for P. N. Review. Watts instead wrote a polemical article titled Cult of the Noble Amateur in which she wrote: “Plum is the product not of a poet but of a personality. I was supposed to be reviewing it, but to do so for a poetry journal would imply that it deserves to be taken seriously as poetry. Besides, I was too distracted by the pathological attitude of its faux-naïve author, and too offended by its editor’s exemplary bad faith, to ignore the broader questions it provokes.” Watts’ article subsequently received broad coverage in several English news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC.
Poet and playwright Tusiata Avia, introduced Sonya Renee Taylor, the founder of The Body Is Not An Apology, and informed us that they had fourteen years of friendship.
The Body Is Not An Apology is an ideal and now also a global business committed to radical self-love and global transformation.
If I could only write two words about this session they would be: Inspiring and Illuminating. Taylor is, as the saying goes, a force of nature. She describes herself as a performance poet and an activist.
Tusiata and Sonya spoke about an incident when they first met at a festival where someone body shamed Taylor, but Avia took it on board as well and it has lasted with her these past fourteen years. Taylor said that “body shame is contagious” as it is often overheard by others.
The day before, Taylor had done an interview with Kim Hill who seemed sceptical that radical self-love could transform the world, but Taylor affirmed that transforming our need to be superior to others transforms the world. Taylor said “we can’t build outside if we haven’t built inside.” The message of love is a transformative tool and Avia posited that this was a message given by all the major spiritual teachers. Taylor explained that self-love should not be confused with self-confidence or self-esteem which were fleeting and externally influenced. Self-love is divine love because it acknowledges the divine within us all. Radical self-love is enduring because it affirms our inherent “enoughness”, our worthiness.
Taylor explained that we never see a two-year-old who hates themselves because we all came here with love, but as we grow that essence gets buried somehow. “Love must be the foundation of the world.”
Taylor said her entire journey in writing the book, The Body Is Not An Apology, was about her learning to navigate her own self-love journey. The book was seven years of examination of the self.
The genesis of her journey began at a Poetry Slam in Knoxville, Tennessee. A female participant with cerebral palsy had excused having unprotected sex by saying that she didn’t feel she could ask the man to use protection because of the way she felt about her body. From somewhere in her subconscious, Taylor told her “your body is not an apology”. This then evolved into a poem and then a Facebook page and eventually a global organisation. It was what Taylor described as a “transformational portal” which occurs when three facets are present: honesty, vulnerability and empathy.
But while performing the poem, The Body Is Not An Apology, Taylor realised that she was transforming some of the contradictions raging inside her. This was further developed with the liberating sight of a plus-size model. Taylor asked herself “why was she hiding?”
Avia explained how through illness she had lost 40 kilos and she noticed a change in social perception of her. Taylor asserted that the concept that healthy bodies are better bodies marginalises so many body types and runs contrary to the irrefutable fact that all bodies are finite because we all die. She called the hierarchy of bodies that was promoted in Western society by media and others “body terrorism”. An example that highlighted body terrorism was the ability for TSA personnel in US airports to body scan body types that sat outside their perfect frame. Taylor said that during one such scan a TSA agent touched her genitals in an act of state-sanctioned sexual assault. New Zealand was not immune since immigrants to our country can be refused if they have a BMI over 35.
Avia posed the question: “How do we achieve radical self-love?” Taylor responded by saying that we all have to interrogate “Body oppression” and change it. We must be willing to change our negative internal messages. Every person has their own sphere of influence in which to practise this. Avia pointed out that there were many tools in the book to help readers with this process.
Gleefully introducing science into her book (Taylor said she was not good at science in school), she compared body shame to pathogens. In order for body shame to thrive there needed to be a triad: host, environment and pathogen. We were the hosts, society was the environment, and body shame was the pathogen. Taylor claimed that when we interrupt that triad, it stops the process of disease.
It was a day later than the official National Poetry Day on Friday 24th August, but we figured the Saturday would free the poets up for other engagements and bring in the biggest audience with the added attraction of the weekly New Brighton market.
The poets joked on arrival that they might be reading to each other if no one showed up, but, between myself and the good people at the Digital Library Web Team, we had drummed up as much free Facebook publicity as we could and it paid off.
An audience of twenty-one showed up to enjoy the poetry of Jeni Curtis, David Gregory, Heather McQuillan and Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, all distinguished poets locally, nationally and internationally.
The event was free, but, if it had been a paying event, it would have been sold-out. To paraphrase the late Frank Zappa, we proved that “poetry is not dead, it just smells funny”.
David Gregory reading to an appreciative audience at New Brighton Library.
Heather McQuillan reading.
Jeni Curtis reading.
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman reading.
There was lots of engagement after the reading between the poets and the members of the audience which was wonderful. New Brighton Library wishes to thank the four poets who gave so generously of their time.
Buy their books, or you can borrow them from Christchurch Libraries.
I must admit I have not yet read Driving to Treblinka, but I am on the long list of library customers who have reserved it to read. I have, however, read all The Listener articles that were the precursors for this book.
The moderator for this session was Philip Matthews, former colleague of Diana Wichtel, but now writing for The Press. He opened the session with some lines from Leonard Cohen’s First We Take Manhattan: “It’s Father’s Day and everybody’s wounded.”
Matthews suggested that Driving to Treblinka was a contribution to world history, but Wichtel demurred. She said that her father’s side of her personal history had remained in silence with a lot unsaid for many years until she reached a certain age. She was spurred by one of her daughters and a niece who said she must find where her father was buried.
When Wichtel was asked to provide a memoir piece and recipe for a book called Mixed Blessings, she was reluctant, but eventually wrote a piece. This was another spur to start researching the life of her father who was a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust by jumping from a train bound for the Nazi death camp, Treblinka. He was sheltered by partisans for the rest of the war. He ended up emigrating to Vancouver, Canada, where he met her Kiwi mother who was on her OE and ended up working at her father’s business.
When Wichtel was 13, her family migrated to New Zealand. The children believed that their father was to follow them after tying up the loose ends of their lives in Vancouver. He never did and she discovered her parents’ marriage had been disintegrating. As fate would have it, her mother met another man in Auckland who was also from Vancouver. He became Wichtel’s stepfather. When Wichtel was 19, her actual father became ill, but she could not afford to return to Canada to see him.
But once Wichtel’s own children had grown up, she was freed to follow the impetus to research her family’s Jewish heritage with her father as the pivotal identity. Wichtel was approached by Mary Varnham of Awa Press and, over four years, with some welcome assistance from her Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship, she researched and wrote Driving to Treblinka.
Wichtel realised that from the outset the book had to be a personal story. She reasoned that if she was exposing her family, she had to expose herself. She stresses to the audience that it is her story and her version of the family’s history as honestly as she can portray it. She found that when she committed to writing the book, many of her own memories were recalled that she had imagined were lost to her.
When she interviewed Daniel Mendelsohn, author of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, he told her that “you have to open the door to the past, knowing you won’t shut it again.” And while working on the book, she felt that she had entered “the stream of history” which unkindly spat her out once her book was published. Worried about her wider family’s reception of her book, Wichtel had three months of anxiety after publication, but then realised to her delight that the family welcomed the book and were pleased she had written it.
Matthews joked that she had been a pioneer of what is now called “dark tourism” and she recounted some of the uncomfortable feelings she had experienced in Poland and in Israel. On a guided tour of Treblinka, she felt it was wrong that there was a cafe on the site. At Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, she saw a guide, himself a survivor, posing for pictures with school children. Another guide was adamant this was not allowed, but Wichtel felt that if the man had survived the Holocaust, then he should be the judge of its appropriateness. She encountered contentious displays of pre-war Jewish life in Krakow and she felt that it airbrushed the anti-semitism that had been present in Poland before and during World War Two. She joked that many people referred to this display area as “Jewrassic Park”.
She read an extract entitled “Snowing in Vancouver” about the last times she had spent with her father in 1964 before migrating to New Zealand at age 13.
Wichtel said the chapter called “Shouting at the Newspaper” was all too relevant with the many falsehoods being spread in the media about Jewish society, Jewish culture and the Holocaust and also the rise of the far-right in Europe and America.
She moved me to free the moths from my wallet. To paraphrase Jane Eyre: “Reader, I bought the book.”
Helen entered the political arena in the time of the clamouring for a nuclear-free Pacific and was very much involved in New Zealand declaring itself nuclear-free, barring the USS Buchanan from entering NZ waters and splitting from ANZUS to forge our own independent political policy stance, also incurring the wrath of our Australian allies who remained subservient to US demands. (Thought: I wonder if Helen ever met Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil)
In 1987, Helen Clark became a Cabinet minister in the Fourth Labour Government, led by David Lange (1984–1989), Geoffrey Palmer (1989–1990) and Mike Moore (1990). As Minister of Health in 1989 she was instrumental in bringing in the Smokefree Act which brought about the tobacco lobby’s PR doing a “hatchet job” on her. But she is still proud of what she achieved as Minister of Health and Kiwis now breathe fresher air in bars and restaurants and other public places.
She regretted that her Employment Equity Bill was “killed by Bill Birch”. She feels that the Gender Pay Gap may have narrowed or closed if it had passed into law.
Helen Clark became the Leader of the Opposition on 1 December 1993. And in 1995, she met Nelson Mandela at a CHOGM conference which was held that year in Auckland. He told her that he really valued New Zealand’s opposition to apartheid and that the prisoners on Robben Island had cheered when they heard that the Hamilton game of the 1981 Springbok tour was cancelled due to protest actions.
Clark said she was inspired by many global women world leaders such as many in Latin America and Africa and “the two Marys” who had been Presidents of Ireland and made a powerful difference to Irish society.
And in 1999, Clark made New Zealand history when she became the first elected female Prime Minister.
Despite all her work and the work of others, Clark felt that, in New Zealand society, women were still under-represented at every political and business level. She felt we still had “a big issue” with sexual and gender-based violence and quoted the Women, Peace and security annual survey done by the University of Georgetown in Washington D.C. which placed New Zealand at 18th which Clark said was “just not good enough”. Iceland was Number One so they were obviously doing something very right for their women.
Clark had so much more to say in her hour onstage about Brash and pervasive racism; how climate change killed more women than men; how having a decent, warm home is a fundamental of a fair society; how media scrutiny of women leaders verged on the ridiculous; about Australia’s treatment and detention of refugees; about how the European so-called “Migration crisis” completely forgot about the past colonial spread of European powers into Africa, Asia, the Pacific and South America; how young women had more opportunities now than when she was a young woman to aspire to high levels of leadership in every sphere of society.
I must end with a quote that had all the audience, men included, laughing out loud. When Clark and Dalziel were discussing the “glass ceiling”, Clark quoted Laura Liswood, the Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders, who said that she never talked about the glass ceiling because she preferred to call it “a thick layer of men”.
Although officially National Poetry Day is Friday 24 August, we decided that we would capture a bigger audience for the reading by holding it on the day after, Saturday 25 August. The weekend market brings people into New Brighton in great numbers and hopefully some of the shoppers are also poetry lovers or, at least, poetry curious. Many Mums and Dads are also free from the constraints of work and may want to introduce their children to the power of poetry when it leaps off the page and springs from the mouths of the poets themselves. Many people believe that poetry is at its most effective when delivered orally and consumed aurally. And the poets promise to be family-friendly.
So New Brighton Library invites you to cast aside your preconceptions and any prejudices against poetry that your high school English teacher may have unwittingly cultivated and let these four wonderful poets show you that poetry can be exciting, funny, moving and thought-provoking.
The reading takes place at 2pm on Saturday 25 August and the poets are:
Jeni Curtis is a Christchurch writer who has had short stories and poetry published in various publications including takahē, NZPS anthologies 2014 to 2017, JAAM, Atlanta Review, The London Grip, and the Poetry NZ Yearbook. In 2016 she received a mentorship from the New Zealand Society of Authors. She is secretary of the Canterbury Poets Collective, and chair of the takahē trust. She is also co-editor of poetry for takahē, and editor of the Christchurch Dickens Fellowship magazine Dickens Down Under.
David Gregory has had three books published in New Zealand, Always Arriving and Frame of Mind, both by Sudden Valley Press and Push by Black Doris Press. His poetry has appeared in a goodly number of publications and anthologies and he has performed his work here and in the UK. He has been involved with the promotion of poetry with for over 20 years. He is also an editor for Sudden Valley Press which has produced over 32 high quality poetry books.
On Tuesday evening I attended the WORD Christchurch event where the English comedian and author, Robert Webb, conversed with Michele A’Court about his book How Not to be a Boy. A’Court suggested How not to be a boy is a “feminist memoir written by a man”. Webb demurred at that description and joked that the “F word” would ruin his chances of sales success.
Webb said that all throughout his life he had thought about gender and the way it defines roles and sets up certain expectations. So when he came to write a memoir, it seemed natural to use gender and its constrictions as a unifying theme.
As a boy, Webb discovered he did not seem to meet the expectations of what a boy should be. He was quiet and shy and not good at sports. Also, he was terrified of his father whom he describes as a violent, philandering, Lincolnshire woodcutter who didn’t really know how to bring up a young family.
Webb’s parents divorced when he was five, and he was brought up by his mother with whom he had a close relationship. Webb described how he felt most at ease in his mother’s company and he recalled fondly how he and his Mum would often sing along loudly with the stereo in the car. When Webb’s mother died of cancer when he was seventeen, he was devastated.
This experience served to illustrate to Webb that the “boys don’t cry” emotional repression that society seems to expect of males is a toxic expectation that does nobody any good. After his mother’s death, he moved back in with his father, had to retake his O Levels and eventually made it to Cambridge University where, because he had not processed his grief, he fell apart. He sought therapy at Cambridge which he found very helpful. Although not talking about one’s feelings was another trait society expected of males, Webb found talking about his feelings was exactly what he needed in order to heal emotionally.
During the evening, Webb read a couple of excerpts from his book. One was an account of his early teens where a male classmate who was pinching all the girls’ bottoms was challenged by another boy who received a smack in the mouth for his trouble. When the harasser was chastised in class by the teacher, Webb felt a sense of shame that he had been a silent enabler and not a “gentleman” like the boy who stood up to the harasser.
Another excerpt concerned the plethora of books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus which Webb saw as letting men off the hook when it came to dealing with their relationships.
Although Webb realised his book appealed to middle-aged feminists, he secretly hoped copies of the book might be passed around in juvenile detention centres and boarding schools. He said he didn’t claim to be any kind of expert and that is why he had employed a tone of self-mockery. He hoped that by using jokes and describing the many things he has done wrong, he could present some serious ideas about gender roles to a male readership and get them thinking about how gender expectations might be limiting their own lives.
Lucky to see the fabulous @arobertwebb tonight, Robert's self deprecating vulnerability draws you into a vital, heartfelt discussion around masculinity and gender performance. Couldn't resist asking for my fave Mitchell&Webb quote in the signing, thank you! @WORDChChpic.twitter.com/ldabJaPdzr
Diary this! On Tuesday 15 May 7.30pm, WORD Christchurch, in association with Auckland Writers Festival, presents Robert Webb in conversation with Kiwi comedian and writer Michele A’Court. Robert is a comedian, actor, and writer, appearing in such gems as Peep Show and Mitchell & Webb. Hewill be speaking about his new book How Not To Be a Boy at the Charles Luney Auditorium, St Margaret’s College, 12 Winchester St, Merivale. Robert will also be signing copies of his book after he speaks. Find out more and buy your tickets.
In his book, Robert looks back to his childhood, through to his university years where he met his friend and comic partner, David Mitchell (both performing for the famous Cambridge Footlights). We are with him for his school days, and as he grapples with grief after the death of his mother.
Growing up, Webb found that society expected boys and men to love sport and play rough, drink beer, never to talk about their feelings, and never to cry. When Webb became a father, he began thinking about the expectations society has of boys and men – and how these expectations were often at best, absurd, and at worst, limiting and emotionally damaging.
Webb will discuss, among other subjects, how various relationships made him who he is as a man, the life lessons we learn as sons and daughters, and “the understanding that sometimes you aren’t the Luke Skywalker of your life – you’re actually Darth Vader.”