If you’re like me then the prelude to Christmas is a hectic blur of to-do lists, gift-wrap flapping, and sugar. Yes, I have started to hoe into the Christmas treats already but I need to keep my strength up.
But it’s good to know that after this last flurry of activity there will be a week or so of peace and relaxation (more or less, depending on your annual leave allowances).
And how do we relax? My favourite thing to do is a good solid block of book or magazine reading, or maybe some movie-watching. So while it’s important to have all your Christmas meal planning and gifting ducks in a row, do make sure to plan for the bit afterwards where you get to put your feet up or spend time with family.
Here are some ways we can help with that –
We are open – Not the public holidays mind you, but with only a couple of exceptions libraries will be open between Christmas and New Year. Some closing times may be different though so check our Holiday Hours for more information so you’ll know just when you can pop in with the kids, or on your own for a bit of soothing shelf-browsing.
So is the digital library – We have a heap of eResources you can access online. Ebooks, eMagazines, eAudiobooks and more. And these are available any time, including public holidays.
Recommendations – Too hard to choose? Don’t know what to pick? Our staff have selected their favourite books, music, movies and TV shows of the year into our Best of 2018 lists – sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, historical fiction – whatever you’re into. Or just rock up to a library and ask a staff member what’s good!
Summertime Reading Challenge – Pick up a postcard at your local library or enter online for a chance to win some great prizes. Or keep and eye on our Facebook page for more opportunities to win.
Even with all the post-demo, gravel-strewn sections in central Christchurch today, it’s still strange to think of Gloucester Street as “paddocky”. But indeed it was, during this part of its history.
A hotel then known as The Criterion had been built in such a paddock 9 years earlier in 1863 by someone named B. Jones. Not much is known about the first proprietor of The Criterion but more is known about their successor – by July 1864 The Criterion Hotel was under the management of local hotelier John “Jack” Coker.
Coker by this time had already declared his first (of several) bankruptcies, and had started a hotel on Cathedral Square which would later become Warner’s. He cut quite the figure about town, dressing in close-fitting suits, “top boots” and carrying a hunting crop, and would be involved with several landmark hotels in Christchurch, including, naturally, Coker’s Hotel on Manchester Street. Coker’s tenure didn’t last long. By 1866 the Criterion was in the hands of a Sgt. John Edward Darby.
The Criterion would have a run of landlords through to the turn of the century, with none lasting more that a few years (Darby fell into coma after a drunken and impromptu New Year’s Eve boxing match at Coker’s Music Hall and died a few days later in January 1867, having lost The Criterion several months earlier). Another landlord (and former police officer) Robert Wallace would move on from The Criterion only to die 5 years later from injuries sustained during a wrestling match, in 1888. It seems 19th century hotel-keeping appealed to a risk-taking sort of gent.
In 1892 William Burnip, an experienced hotelier, took over The Criterion renaming it, somewhat unimaginatively, “The New Criterion”. By 1902 the state of the two-storey wooden building was such that a continuation of the license (due for renewal in June) would only be granted if building plans for a new premises were submitted in March of that year.
In early February of that year Burnip and his wife woke to find the hotel storeroom ablaze. No lives were lost but the hotel was gutted. The total insurance on the building and furniture was £1350, over $240,000 in today’s money. Whether there was a connection is anyone’s guess, but some papers in their coverage of the fire seem to have placed both sets of facts together in a pointed way that suggests the question was being asked, though not directly.
The new New Criterion rose like a phoenix from the ashes. The foundation stone for the new building was laid on 2 September 1902. The rebuilt Criterion was in stone and brick in a “Renaissance Revival” style and was built by W. H. Bowen. It was designed by Joseph Clarke Maddison, a prominent Christchurch architect who designed several hotels in the city including Warner’s Hotel, The Clarendon, and further east the Lancaster Park Hotel. One of his best known designs is the Government Buildings in Cathedral Square.
Bowen had presented Burnip with a silver trowel by way of commemoration at the laying of the foundation stone but he may have wished it were a silver spoon instead. Due to the insurance company disputing the extent of the fire damage Burnip would receive less than half the insured amount and by 1904 he was no longer the sole licensee, having taken on Messrs Fox and Samson as partners. By 1906 he had passed the splendid new Criterion on to other hands. And that’s when the real fun started.
A couple by the name of Green took on the New Criterion and would go on to scandalise Christchurch.
Jessie Green was the daughter of Tuapeka hotelkeeper Daniel Bannatyne and had earlier run the Douglas Hotel in Dunedin with her first husband Frank Guinness who passed away in 1895. With second husband John George Green she took over the running of the New Criterion and by the following year their conduct had become a scandal that was reported up and down the country.
The New Zealand International Exhibition of 1906-1907 took place in Hagley Park and brought a great many visitors to the city (2 million people visited the Exhibition, though the population of New Zealand was only 1 million at the time). Perhaps it was this influx of visitors, some of whom may have been more inclined to “cut loose” while away from home, that encouraged Mrs Green in her “questionable” management of the hotel bar and staff.
Rumours had been circulating for months about the “going ons” at the hotel and in September 1907 the Christchurch Licensing Committee heard evidence from a succession of barmaids – evidence that prompted the New Zealand Truth to speculate in its headline “LOW DOWN BROTHEL OR PUBLIC HOUSE“. The New Zealand Herald’s coverage was positively low-key by comparison preferring to distill the story to its main, eye-catching components with the simple declaration, “GIRLS AND CHAMPAGNE“.
Mrs Green, it would seem, employed more barmaids than was usual (seven or eight at a time!) and encouraged them to be “shouted” champagne by the customers. This of course lead to better takings, but also in some circumstances, the female staff were getting drunk and “retiring” to their rooms where they would also receive “visitors”. What went on behind closed doors nobody was indelicate enough to say outright but there was a strong suggestion of “indecency”.
As always the New Zealand Truth is a treasure trove of descriptive language about the whole affair, saying of the landlady,
…it would appear that Mrs Green, wife of the licensee, John George Green, is very partial to customers who plank down the boodle and shout fizz.
And of her husband, who seemed not to have much involvement in the running of the hotel, that he must either have been blind or “a consummate ass who shouldn’t have charge of a fruit-barrow”.
Unsurprisingly the Licensing Committee did not renew the Greens’ license and six months later they moved to Tauranga. In addition, all the barmaids (whether there was any suggestion they had participated in the “champagne shouting” or not) were fired, Blenheim native Henry Macartney became the proprietor, and the hotel was re-named The Dominion. When Macartney too moved on in 1908, the Marlborough Express was at pains to point out that “under his control the Dominion Hotel ranked as one of the best conducted in the city”, such was the need to distance an upstanding publican from the Criterion scandal.
Still, a hotel is a hotel and The Dominion had its share of dramas too, such as fires and burglaries. And in 1930 some alterations were made to the building by Francis Willis (architect).
In 1980 it was refurbished and reopened as The Coachman Inn, the name possibly a nod to Bruce & Coes, a passenger and parcel service, who in the 1860s had their stables and booking office next door. Later the upstairs bar would become a separate establishment operating as The Loft and specialising in Irish music (in the 1990s changing hands and becoming The Finbar), while downstairs the restaurant would be known as Excalibur’s Theatre Restaurant featuring players like local theatre legend Elizabeth Moody.
In the mid-1990s the Coachman was threatened with demolition but would eventually be acquired by Christchurch City Council due to the building’s heritage values, and would later become a protected building.
At the time of the earthquakes, the Coachman Inn operated as backpacker accommodation and was home, on its ground floor, to Fuji Japanese Restaurant.
Following the Boxing Day 2010 aftershock, the building was red-stickered, partly because a section of the parapet on the Britten building (105 Worcester St) had collapsed causing damage. The remaining piece of it was also a fall hazard. Part of the parapet of the Coachman had also collapsed on top of the roof of a smaller building at 146 Gloucester Street where The Press had its circulation and marketing teams. The Coachman was close to reopening when the 22 February 2011 quake damaged it beyond repair. It was demolished in July 2011.
As described by the Photo Hunt entrant in 2016, “This is my father and mother on Sumner Beach just before dad went for about (I think over) four years to the Second World War. They married just before he went. The war affected them both as my mother said it was like a stranger she met after four years. I feel the beach photo shows a vulnerability of the unknown to come in both their faces. I think she was opening her purse to get her lipstick for the photos!”
Highy Commended entry in the 2016 Christchurch City Libraries Photo Hunt.
Do you have any photographs of people’s lives in Christchurch during the Second World War? If so, feel free to contribute to our collection.
About Photo Hunt
October is Photo Hunt month at Christchurch City Libraries. We invite you to share any of your photos and help grow the city’s photographic archive. All entries must be received by 31 October.
Share your photos and help us to create a true picture of our city’s rich history. Anyone can contribute.
The thing I really enjoy about comedy podcast, The Nerd Degree, is that though there’s generally a theme running through the episodes, you really never know what you’re going to get. And neither do the panelists, for the most part. But a safe bet is that there’ll be amazing facts, nerdy knowledge and plenty of laughs.
If you’ve never experienced The Nerd Degree either in person, or in podcast, then the best way to describe it is as a local comedy quiz show for nerds of all stripes (there are many varieties). It’s QI meets the MCU (or MMORPG or… LARP) . There are two teams, the host asks the questions, and points are distributed in a rather haphazard fashion.
The nerds at last month’s very special episode at WORD Christchurch were local YA author Karen Healey and Jolisa “Tell you what” Gracewood competing as team Comparatively Literate with scary movie specialist Dr. Erin Harrington and Ngāi Tahu writer and artist Nic Low as Essentially Illiterate. With Brendon Bennetts in charge of time-keeping and correct answers.
The theme of the episode was “adventure” and we sure were taken on a journey. It’s hard to talk about the content of the episode without spoiling it though I can say that Nic Low is a man who has an amazing story about seemingly everything (if he ever writes a memoir it will be a must-read), that Karen Healey has missed her calling as a writer for Macgyver and that apparently armadillo tastes a bit like duck.
American science fiction writer Ted Chiang has a very particular way of speaking. He pauses a lot to gather his thoughts, and the intonation, or melody, of his voice doesn’t vary much. This can have the effect of making it feel that he is taking a very long time to get to the point. Fortunately, Arrival is the third WORD Christchurch session of his that I’m attending so I’ve become somewhat accustomed to it. Because once you get past the quality of his voice, he actually does have some interesting things to say.
It also helps that Arrival (the only sci-fi movie I’ve every watched with a middle-aged female linguist as its hero – feel free to recommend others if you know of any) is a recent favourite of mine, and that I’m part way through reading The story of your life, the novella on which the movie is based.
Local sci-fi and fantasy author, Karen Healey happily lets Chiang talk about the things that interest him about the genre he writes in. You get the impression from Ted Chiang that he spends a lot of time thinking generally, and about science fiction especially, so his thoughts, when he does finally express them are fully-formed. His lines are not throwaway ones. He’s considered these things from a variety of angles.
For instance, he rejects the notion that his writing “transcends genre”, as, in his opinion, this is the kind of thing that people who don’t usually like science fiction say – the implication being that the rest of the genre isn’t very good, and that this thing that they somehow like is some kind of aberration.
Hollywood sci-fi vs literary sci-fi
I especially enjoy hearing about his views on the nature of science fiction storytelling in movies versus in fiction because, as a fan of sci-fi cinema, I recognise that his observations have the unerring ring of truth to them and I may never watch an MCU movie in the same way again.
In Hollywood sci-fi, he says, there’s very often a good vs. evil scenario in which the world is in a good/peaceful/stable state then something evil/monstrous/destructive comes along and there is a struggle to overcome this force of evil and return the world to a state of goodness, peace, and harmony. It’s a very conservative formula in that it’s looking to restore the status quo. This immediately makes me think of Make America Great Again (MAGA) and just how powerful narratives that resonate with people can be. Human beings love stories and we like to use the same patterns of story over and over again.
The kind of science fiction that Chiang is interested in is entirely different. In these kinds of stories the world is changed by some kind of disruption or discovery and the change is irrevocable. There is no going back to the way things were before. At the end of the story the world is a very different place from what it was at the beginning, and more than that it’s not necessarily a better place, just a different one. This is a much more progressive storyline and one that you don’t get much in Hollywood movies, if for no other reason than that they are not easy to make a sequel to.
For instance, all the Jurassic Park franchise (currently on its 5th film – a 6th is planned) needs for there to be another dinosaurs-cause-chaos story is for some scientists to make the same errors of judgement the first lot did and the “oh no, who could have foreseen this dinosaur-related catastrophe happening again?” scenario can and will happen again.
Compare this with Chiang’s favourite science fiction film, The Matrix. In many ways it looks like a battle between good vs. evil story but it’s not. The world is a radically different place at the end of the movie. “Neo’s monologue at the very end of the film,” says Chiang “has really stuck with me”. And just in case we didn’t believe him, he quotes it, word for word:
I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid… you’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.
To Chiang this quote perfectly captures what it is to be a radical or a revolutionary. It is not the status quo and it is not comforting, which good vs. evil stories often are. Ted Chiang is not interested in writing “comforting” fiction.
Humanity, curiosity and evidence
What he is interested in is what it means to be human and for him a sense of curiosity, which Healey points out is often present in his characters, is essential.
To be fully human is to be actively engaged with the world around us…
Trying to learn more about the universe is a really noble pursuit and “profoundly meaningful”. And though a lot of his stories have a theoretical question or “though experiment” at their core he feels that science fiction, by tying these ideas to a character with an emotional storyline, can make them more accessible to people.
Philosophy doesn’t have to be so radically removed from our lived experience. I think it’s interesting because it does apply to our lived experience.
Chiang is an Atheist but has an interest in religion. In one of his stories he imagines a world in which there is irrefutable evidence of the existence of God and explores whether that would make it easier or harder to have faith. In some ways, he thinks it would be harder.
In response to a question from Healey about how you approach people from the past as a topic for science fiction, Chiang is magnanimous – people in the past had a different way of viewing the world. Given the observations they had at the time, their interpretations often make sense. Subsequent observations can change this view, of course. They were engaged in the same general practise as modern scientists are engaged in.
It was perhaps this train of conversation that prompted the first of the audience questions, as a very forthright arm shot up a couple of rows in front of me, and an older gentleman asked what Chiang’s thoughts were on the question of “settled science”, a phrase that he felt was being used to shut down debate in such areas as Climate Change (a topic, it should be noted, on which the vast majority of the scientific community is in agreement).
Chiang, as is his habit, takes a while to get to the point of his answer but to summarise it is basically this: Science is practised by human beings who have biases, but scientists are far more aware of their biases than other people (in particular, politicians, who are the worst at recognising their own vested interests). Science fiction in general aligns with scientists. And science by its nature doesn’t really get to an end point.
This is so successfully diplomatic a response that the questioner, judging by the nodding of his head, felt he was being agreed with. Sir, you were not being agreed with. You were being disagreed with in a slow, patient manner.
The only other audience question was, shockingly, about science fiction and picked up on Chiang’s earlier discussion of The Matrix, which the audience member wondering what he made of the sequels. Like most of us, he found them disappointing calling them “the prime example of the harmful effects” of Hollywood’s demand for sequels, when “commerce runs counter to artistic goals”.
Which led nicely into a discussion of how the film Arrival got made.
The movie’s genesis was rather different route than what’s usual, as the screenwriter Eric Heisserer had read Chiang’s story and wanted to adapt it, but then had to find someone to produce it. Chiang is at pains to point out that Heisserer deserves all the credit for making The Story of your life work as a movie, as Chiang himself considered it “unfilmable” due to its very “internal” nature. And Chiang himself offered a few comments on the screenplay but mostly stayed out of it.
The movie-making business is so, so weird and it’s not something I want to be closely involved in.
Diversity in science fiction
Chiang is happy about the shift in science fiction that has seen increasing diversity in its authors and writing, though this hasn’t been without its conflicts, Chiang describing sci-fi’s “own version of the Alt-Right” laying seige to the Hugo Awards for a number of years. These efforts, in his opinion, have ultimately proved unsuccessful. N. K. Jemisin, a queer, African-American woman winning the Hugo for best novel for an unprecedented three years running.
Chiang also points out that the popularity of The three body problem by Cixin Liu, a work translated into English from Chinese, is another example of a growning openness in science fiction.
I think it’s great because for a long time science fiction, despite it being very forward looking – in practice it’s been very conservative.
Not to mention the tropes. So. Many. Tropes. And conventions and little in-jokes. Science fiction, Chiang seems to be saying, in some quarters has become unchallenging and… comfortable.
I very much want [science fiction] to be filled with surprising reading experiences. I think science fiction should be about questioning your assumptions… It should make you wonder about things you took for granted, things you assumed to be true but actually are just a societal convention.
The more different science fiction writers there are, he says, the more likely it is that you get that experience.
And there he goes again, advocating against the status quo. Ted Chiang: the slow-spoken, thoughtful revolutionary.
For Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori we’ve been suggesting ways to help improve your te reo Māori skills.
Learning kupu (words) and wetereo (grammar) are obviously quite important if you’re trying to strengthen your reo. But phrases (idioms or colloquial sayings) can also be really helpful and add a bit of flourish to your conversations.
Try out some of the these:
Meaning: Flash, stylie, stylish, smart, with-it, outstanding, remarkable, inspired, creative, primo
– An idiom to express appreciation of attractiveness of something that has been created.
Damien: Tapatapahi ana! Those are mean sunglasses Kat, where did you get them?
kei runga noa atu [koe]
Meaning: [You’re] top-notch! [You’re] great! [You’re] too much! [You’re] outstanding! [You’re] on to it! [You’re] the bomb!
– An idiom praising someone for his/her outstanding work.
Denise: Man, I just cleaned up the worst mess in the public toilet!
Maatakiwi: auē, kei runga noa atu koe e hine! Far out that’s gross, but you’re really on to it Denise, awesome work!
me rawa ake
Meaning: Very soon, next minute
Rochelle: Left my scooter outside the Dairy, mea rawa ake, someone stole it!
Tania: Paia! Tūranga, the new central library opens on Friday 12th October, can’t wait!
Meaning: (Interjection) yes, yes indeed, just so! Yes it is! Yeah, agreed
– a supportive response to a statement or question.
Damien: Did you see the game on Saturday, man Joe Moody was on fire!
Kate: Āna! He was spectacular.
he raru kei te haere
Meaning: trouble is on the horizon / trouble is brewing
– an expression indicating a problem is about to occur.
Alan: Oh heck, he raru kei te haere, look at Kim’s face.
Fiona: True! Might be a good time to go for a coffee.
me noa ake au!
Meaning: Just saying / my suggestion
Julia: Bronwyn makes the best sausage rolls ever, me noa ake au!
Find out more
Throughout Te Wiki o te Reo Māori we’ll be blogging about ways you can help strengthen the reo.
Like most kids my son enjoys stories before bedtime (which is just as well because his mum is a librarian and he was going to be getting them regardless).
Like a lot of Kiwi parents I do my best to add some te reo Māori into the mix where I can, but my own Māori language knowledge is a bit patchy in places – I’m a work in progress. So how to expose my 4 year old to some te reo, but also read a story so we’ll both understand it and enjoy the experience?
I’ve found that reading te reo Māori versions of books we already know really well in English has been a fun way to do it. It helps if it’s a book that you’ve read so many times, you’ve practically got it memorised. That way you can “read” the English language version (out loud from memory), and then read the te reo version from the page.
Our latest success with this method has been with Stephanie Blake’s Poo Bum aka Paraweta, which has just come out in te reo.
I let my tamaiti hold the original version and turn the pages of that one, while I hold the Māori language version, and he yells out “Paraweta!” at the appropriate points in the story.
Here are some other te reo Māori versions of children’s classics we’ve enjoyed that you might like to try:
If you’re a te reo beginner then start with simple stories like The very hungry caterpillar, Where’s Spot or even Kei te pehea koe? / How do you feel? (which is in both English and Māori and is really easy to follow).
Or try stories in English that incorporate some te reo Māori words like The kuia and the spider (because it’s never to early to learn words like “hōha“), or Row, kiwi, row your boat, which you can sing together and includes simple Māori greetings (and a full te reo version for more confident speakers/singers).
Even if I trip up on a word here and there I’ve found that as long as I’m doing the silly voices and engaging with the story, my son is pretty happy to have a te reo Māori story at bedtime, in fact… Paraweta is his new favourite.
Find out more
Throughout Te Wiki o te Reo Māori we’ll be blogging about ways you can help strengthen the reo.
There are few things I enjoy as much as a true tale of shame and embarrassment told by a gifted spinner of yarns. Even better if the story in question doesn’t have me as its protagonist, though this isn’t compulsory. In fact, many’s the time I’ve found myself in some ridiculous predicament only to think “ah well, at least this’ll make a good story”.
Such was the basis, I suspect, of Robin Robertson‘s 2003 anthology Mortification: Writers’ Stories of their Public Shame, a book that grew out of his work in publishing that required him to travel the country talking with writers. He discovered both a rich vein of mortifying stories, and certain one-upmanship in storytelling (I have certainly experienced this myself, and the phrase “you think that’s bad…” is usually in the mix).
In this WORD Christchurch Festival session Robertson revived Mortification in a live format. It’s one thing writing an embarrassing anecdote down for publication – is it better or worse to have to read it in front of an audience? It’s hard to know if the writers involved are Robertson’s victims, or simply masochists but they all acquitted themselves with dignity… or at least as much as could reasonably be mustered. Which in the case of Jarrod Gilbert (whom we’ll get to later) wasn’t much.
The session kicked off with a pre-recorded yarn from Irvine Welsh who, due to a family bereavement, was unable to attend in person. While I’m sure it would have been even more entertaining to hear Welsh tell his appalling tale of gastric misadventure and horrifying toilet facilities in person, I didn’t feel let down by his absence at all. Talking down the barrel of a cellphone camera, Welsh was devastatingly matter of fact in describing his attempts to “get away” with his unexpected befoulment, believing that he had done so… only to have his shame revealed by the unfortunate arrival of a group of pub-crawling Glaswegians. Welsh admitted that he is no stranger to public shame or the subsequent “crumbling down effect when your face collapses”, saying:
I’ve become really inured to the kind of embarrassment that really f***s up other people.
Apparently if you’re mortified often enough it sort of stops bothering you.
Paula Morris, respected writer and mainstay of the New Zealand literary scene, might beg to differ. She offered up, not a single, horrifying tale, but a thousand small humiliations instead, ranging from critical underwear failure at an operatic recital to childhood trauma via angry goat. Shorts that inexplicably opened during a speech. The shame of being at a signing table where noone wants your signature. Repeatedly being mistaken for poet Paula Green. And most significantly, her failed attempt at guiding a blind woman and her dog between London tube stations. It was a hard act to follow Welsh, but Morris can hold her head up high… in shame.
Steve Braunias told a clever and complex tale set during a period of unemployment, when his lodgings were less than salubrious. Braunias is a great storyteller – you don’t quite see the punchline coming, even as the clues of it are laid out carefully as he goes along, the slightly dopey loser persona he adopts adding to the comedic effect. The audience were in stitches. And yet… to me it felt very much like carefully crafted humorous story… that didn’t really happen. Which is fine as far as humorous stories go, but there’s something about the vulnerability of a true story, told by the person it happened to that is far more affecting. Being clever isn’t the point. Being shamefacedly honest is. Call me cynical, if you will, but I struggle to believe that Steve Braunias did, in fact, give Helen Clark fleas at a classical guitar concert.
On the other hand, I didn’t have any trouble believing that Megan Dunn (author of Tinderbox) attended a mermaid class in Florida, nor that she was not particularly gifted in the art of mermaiding. Synchronised swimmers aside, who would be? One of the reasons I believe this story is that Megan Dunn is currently writing a nonfiction book about mermaids (the pretend adult woman kind, not the mythical creature kind – no, I didn’t know there were different kinds either) and because if you’re going to invent a story that involves shimmying into a lycra mermaid “tail” it’s not going to be orange. Still, I felt like the actual mortification levels in this story were comparatively low because “failing to be sufficiently mermaidy” just isn’t that embarrassing. Fascinating, yes. A topic you’d rather didn’t come up round the Christmas dinner table? Not so much.
Finally, Dr. Jarrod Gilbert, award-winning author, University of Canterbury lecturer and, according to Braunias, “the thinking man’s drinking man” shared an inspiring* tale of bloody-minded determination vs good sense, reason and dignity (but who needs them anyway?). As is often the case with tales of humiliation it began with guys egging each other on – a friend simply said that Gilbert couldn’t run a marathon in 3.5 hours. So rather than let his friend be right about something, Gilbert endeavoured to do just that. What resulted was hallucinatory levels of physical and mental pain, and a impromptu bowel movement – Gilbert walking to the centre of the stage and adopting a crouching posture so as to paint a more vivid image in our minds (that wasn’t really necessary). This took place on the Sumner Causeway, or as Gilbert described it, “possibly the most exposed piece of geography on Earth”.
But there’s a happy ending! Gilbert achieved his marathon goal (thereby disproving his friend’s assertion) with less than 2 minutes to spare… admitting “it’s very difficult for me to describe just how little satisfaction that gave me”. It’s almost as if a person shouldn’t undertake a massively time-consuming and difficult task just to prove a point wasn’t in great need of being made.
Though saying that, it’s probably not in the spirit of the evening to try and extract a moral from any of these stories. Then again, “beware inopportune Glaswegians” does have a certain ring to it.
This WORD Christchurch Festival session brought together American author, Ted Chiang (whose novella, The Story of Your Life, became the acclaimed film, Arrival) and kiwis Whiti Hereaka (author of YA novel Legacy), and Michael Bennett (author, with Ant Sang of graphic novel, Helen and the Go-go ninjas). What, I wondered, would the writers of such temporally transformative works have to say on the topic?
As it was, I was feeling a little like I’d slipped forward in time myself – I woke up that morning to discover that it was September already. How had that happened?
In fact, the first question made reference to James Gleick’s aforementioned book – Ted Chiang disagreeing with Gleick’s assertion that The Time Machine by H. G. Wells represents the first example of a story featuring time travel, and that Wells is the originator of time travel in that sense. Rather, he feels that time travel tales are more a modern take on a prophecy story, a common tale since ancient times. The fact that story prophecies always came true was a reflection of the ancient world’s belief in fate. Your destiny lay ahead of you, and no matter what you might do to try and change it it would always find you. If there was a shift, Chiang believes, it was one away from believing in fate towards believing in free will.
This is something you can see in a story like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge, having travelled to a possible future, escapes his fate by changing his ways. He exerts free will and the course of his life is altered. By comparison, The Time Machine’s protagonist doesn’t engage with the possibilities of time travel at all, moving through time but not making any attempts to alter its course (which, now that I think about it, is kind of the point of time travel stories, by and large).
Michael Bennett and Whiti Hereaka both made comments as to the importance of prophecy in Māori culture. And Bennett pointed out that Māui himself fought time, slowing the sun to extend the length of our days.
When asked about the pervasiveness of the genre, Bennett reflected that we all understand “the unfairness of time” and deployed a rather splendid extended metaphor of the time as a river – we have not choice but to flow with the current, which at certain times in our lives seems too slow, though as we continue along we try to slow it down, looking for the eddies that might delay our arrival at our ultimate destination.
Chiang’s motivation for writing The story of your life was, through the character of Louise, exploring an aspect of human nature “the knowledge that in the future comes great joy and great sadness and coming to accept that both things lay ahead of her”.
Hereaka’s reason for writing a time travel story grew out of her desire to tell the stories of soldiers in the First World War’s Māori Contingent – she hadn’t previously been aware of this part of our history and wanted a way to share it, moreover she wanted to have those characters speak in their own voices, not via a modern one. Later on, in response to an audience question about creating voices from the past, she says that her theatre background helped but it also took some research, reading novels of the time, oral histories and where available listening to recordings.
She also had a really interesting perspective on the relationship between the writer and the reader saying:
I believe writing books is an act of manaakitanga – welcoming people into your world.
When asked about their favourite time travel stories Hereaka admitted that television was her go to – series like Life on Mars and Ashes to ashes as well as Doctor Who (Jon Pertwee was her Doctor but the imminent arrival of a female Doctor is something she’s really excited about). Bennett, somewhat unsettlingly, admitted to reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five at the tender age of ten, and it has remained a favourite. Chiang favoured the movie Back to the future which he says is “a Swiss clock of plotting” for which he has “immense affection”.
The craft of storytelling was highlighted by an audience question about the constraints that time travel places on the story. Bennett confirmed that not making it too hard for the reader to follow can be a concern. And Chiang pointed out that Time Travel as a device is “the universal acid that will dissolve any container you put it in” in terms of story. Suddenly your protagonist’s problems can be fixed by going back in time and doing it again. For that reason Time Travel stories usually have some “rules” or constraints applied to them to stop the easy fix from occurring. And no, these constraints may not hold up to close inspection – but you’re only looking to suspend disbelief for a time, to tell a story.
Hereaka was in agreement with Chiang on this saying:
That’s what stories are… It’s about solving problems and humans finding out what it is to be human.
When asked if they could time travel what they think they would do, Hereaka said that period dramas sometimes make her wish she could live in another era but she’d come to a realisation – “no, you wish you were rich”. So wherever she goes in time she wants to be well funded.
Chiang doesn’t think that “there’s any period in history that I would be better off in than right now” and that trying to change history at all is not a good idea as you can’t have any confidence that the changes you make would work out.
For fans of sci-fi and time travel fiction this session gave some interesting insights into what these kinds of stories can tell us about ourselves, and the challenges they pose to the storyteller. A session that I’m happy enough to have spent some forward travelling time in.
It certainly was a rather star-studded affair on Friday night at the Isaac Theatre Royal for WORD Christchurch’s gala event. Everywhere a person turned there were famous faces about; Helen Clark striding past on the footpath out front, Michele A’Court queuing at the bar in the foyer, Georgina Beyer chatting in the row in front of me metres away from Ted Chiang in one direction and Juno Dawson in another. What fine company to be in of an evening.
Festival director Rachael King opened proceedings with a valiantly lengthy introduction in te reo Māori (with help, it turned out from Ngāi Tahu Māori language advocate and educator Hana O’Regan). She admitted that the programme she and her team and brought together was “unashamedly feminist” and challenging, exhorting the audience to “see one session a day that scares you”*.
From there MC John Campbell took the reins, confessing that he can be a difficult man to pin down, refusing as he does to reply to any kind of communications (phone calls, emails and the like), but that King is “as tenacious and unbowed as the city itself” and hence his appearance at this event.
I don’t know what John Campbell is like as a gift-giver (if his Christmas presents are rushed affairs or precisely wrapped and carefully considered) but his compliments… his compliments are like finely crafted jewels – cut and polished, thoroughly researched, and presented in a bespoke arrangement you’ll never have the like of again. Each writer, in their turn, was the recipient of John Campbell Compliments™ and I can’t imagine I’m the only one who felt jealous.
The usual pattern for these events is for each of seven writers to take seven minutes to read something or tell a story with the MC making introductions in between. But rather than disturb the flow like a “judderbar” in the evening, Campbell preferred to bring all the writers out in a line-up (like a literary beauty pageant), and introduce (and compliment) them in the beginning, making links and connections between them as he went on.
The overriding them between, he thought, was the shared struggle to be human. What I am and what I am not. The question we all ask.
First up was Ngāi Tahu storyteller Joseph Hullen who reflected on what it had been like growing up in Christchurch, and how his mother’s Ngāi Tahu whakapapa was barely visible in the city, with only a few places like Te Hepara Pai (Church of the Good Shepherd) on Ferry Road or Rehua Marae on Springfield Road that reflected any sense of a Māori presence or identity in the city. But things have changed and his hapu, Ngai Tuahūriri now have Matapopore, a organisation that is adding touches of his people’s identity into the fabric of Christchurch. The name of the new central library, Tūranga being a prime example of this, referencing as it does, the arrival place of Paikea the father of Ngāi Tahu’s eponymous ancestor, Tahu Pōtiki, and the knowledge he brought with him.
Scot, Robin Robertson took the stage next and brought a voice filled with menace and foreboding telling several dark tales in poem form, including one about a cat dying of cancer. His last piece, an invented Scots narrative about selkies, he dedicated to King, the author of Red Rocks, and children’s novel about the self-same mythic seal-creatures.
Robertson was followed by Yaba Badoe reading the opening chapter of her book A jigsaw of fire and stars. In it a baby is set adrift to escape a devastating event, bringing to mind mythic versions of the “floating foundling baby” like that of Moses, Maui, or even Superman.
Hollie McNish read some of her poetry and I found my eyes moistening as she spoke of her daughter in poems like “Wow”. The power of seeing a new, young person figuring out the world and their place in it conjures up powerful emotions for McNish, and secondhand, for me.
Wellingtonian novellist Rajorshi Chakraborti talked about the genesis of his book The man who would not see. It started out as what became “the book that could not be” – a nonfiction tale about the disappearance of his father’s sister. After hours and hours of research that led to a re-connection of estranged segments of his family it became apparent that publishing the book would damage that family connection. in the end, he says “the family member in me trumped the writer”. And so he repurposed and reshaped his research into a novel instead.
Whale-lover Philip Hoare read a couple of extracts from RisingTideFallingStar, stepping out from behind the podium and reading in a most kinetic way, gets his whole body into the reading, acting out certain actions and movements of the protagonist as he went. The language is sensuous and descriptive and you can nearly smell the salt air.
Finally Sonya Renee Taylor explains that there are two kinds of fear, fear of the unknown and fear of the dangerous. We should try not “the fog of the unknown” because there may well be nothing there to harm us. As the free-diver she met in the Bahamas, who dives down into the depths of the unknown, says “every metre is a tiny freedom”. Her poem about her mother’s belly made me cry again, but her “The body is not an apology” ends the night on a triumphant and defiant note.