This time last year our intrepid blogger Roberta interviewed the author at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival, so we can feel somewhat connected, even if it is vicariously!
Whenever I think of that particular book it sends shivers down my spine, and Tilda Swinton I think is an inspired choice as the mother – “the original ice queen” as a colleague just commented. I wonder who will be the stand out author at this year’s festival? There always seems to be one or two that the team take a particular shine to.
William Dalrymple’s presentation The Last Mughal was the last major session of the festival and what a way to go out. The man is a wonderful writer and a great performer. His voice swoops up and down in emphasis, his turn of phrase is dramatic and the history he recounts is fascinating and tragic.
The court of the last Mughal emperor in Delhi was a place of little political power or financial wealth in 1857 but it was a place of great cultural wealth. Dalrymple described it as like the age of Shakespeare for South Asia. The emperor himself, now very old, was a fine poet. It was also a place where Muslim and Hindu cultures met harmoniously.
The rise of religious fundamentalism and the arrogance of conquerors that beset the British East India Company (think Microsoft with an army says Dalrymple) lead to actions which precipitated a calamatous uprising and the eventual destruction of the Mughals and their beautiful city Delhi. The British, lead by people whom he describes as imperial psychopaths were ruthless in their crushing of opposition.
Backed by some lovely slides illustrating the art, the people and the places Dalrymple held us absorbed in his tale and finished by reading a beautiful poem attributed to the emperor as he lay in a British prison and one which is still widely read in India today.
Thomas Keneally took the plunge as a writer by sending his first novel to an English publishing firm whose address he got from the copyright page of a book. Publication was his salvation as he says here:
What has followed is a prolific writing career of novels and histories centred around a rich vein of stories. The people he writes about tell stories that make history and our lives a bit more explicable. He prefers writing novels where you can be “so intimately in the character” but he loves history too and his mantra is “If you tell the story of one you tell the story of all in the way imagination can get a purchase on”
A wicked laugh punctuates his stories. Talking of doing the schools session he said it was “very hard to be a hip geriatric” but there is always the miracle of well read kids. He clearly remembers what it was like to be a teenager. He lived in Homebush which for him was “the epicentre of Australian boredom”. He describes how he desperately wanted to “compete with the jocks and run with the nerds”.
Books were important from an early age. Libraries featured in his attempts to impress the girls. Hear it in his own words as he describes the Mitchell Library
I think Thomas Keneally will go on telling stories till he dies and we are all the richer for it.
So the festival has come to an end, after another full day. The magnetic strip on my Bank of Adjectives card as worn thin, and my verbal credit limit has been reached. Here’s the under ten-minute audio wrap up:
Roberta went to Yi Yun Li, a creativity workshop, Rick Gekoski and William Dalrymple;
Marion sampled Marti Friedlander, John Carey at the Michael King memorial lecture, Rick Gekoski and William Dalrymple;
Bronwyn went to a session asking what good was religion, John Freeman on shrinking the world and libraries, and Rick Gekoski;
Richard had real world day – digital publishing in Read any Good Bytes lately, and Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s Best of Both Worlds session, as well as a chat with Bernadette Hall.
And, once you’ve digested that, get a feel for the overall buzz of the festival with our selection of highlights in this six-minute clip, complete with the gravelly laugh of Thomas Keneally …
Over breakfast this morning, today’s session titled Religion: What is it good for? led inevitably to impassioned discussion regarding Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Bruce Springsteen, and the (mis-)appropriation of pop music for literary purposes. Sadly, our lot failed to reach consensus, unlike the panelists in the real Festival session. Adrian Wooldridge, Michael Otterman and Antony Loewenstein were remarkably united on several fronts, not the least being their disdain for Richard Dawkins. I’ve already outlined some of the main points about these three guys here, and for Michael Otterman’s session, here, and told you it’s impossible to cover their topics in a short blog post, so won’t revisit, but I will attempt to provide a bit of the flavour of this combined session, before you rush off to find the books.
Chair Sean Plunket led off with a request for each speaker to make his own personal declaration of their beliefs. In their own words – Antony Loewenstein identifies himself as a Jewish atheist who is agnostic about whether religion is good or bad; Michael Otterman is an agnostic cultural Jew from New York, which means he loves Seinfeld and eats bagels on Sundays; and Adrian Wooldridge, having been born C of E, is therefore an atheist who is relatively sympathetic to religion, and who also enjoys Seinfeld.
Whether or not you believe in God, Wooldridge says, current research shows that religion itself is Continue reading →
In Outside of a Dog: a Bibliomemoir, Rick Gekoski connects 25 books that have been special to him at different stages in his life. These books range from Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr Seuss to Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein and twenty-three others in-between.
Gekoski writes with remarkable candour and by the end of the book I felt as if he was a close friend. Which is why, when I encountered him in the lift at the hotel, I greeted him as if we were old acquaintances who were delighted to meet up again. Of course he doesn’t know me from a bar of soap – he must get a lot of that in his travels.
He is billed as being “The Bill Bryson of the book world” – I can only imagine how annoying that must be for him, but the truth is that this is a very entertaining book which is also certain to inspire you to make a list of the twenty-five books that exemplify your life. If you do decide to do this and then turn it into a book, Gekoski has this advice for you: “Find the right language to capture the form of life you are observing and participating in. Take some risks and above all, make it fun!”
In his festival event Gekoski spoke to John Carey and it was like being a voyeur in a gentleman’s club. It was as if they had quite forgotten that we were there. Carey spoke us through some of the stages in Gekoski’s life and the books that were connected to those stages. In his talk he revealed not only some of the authors whom he revered , but also a few who hadn’t impressed. He is no fan of Harold Pinter or Joan Didion and felt that Paul Theroux was one of the most difficult authors he had ever met.
When it came to book signing time, I asked him the question I had not asked in the session which is: why he is so uncomfortable in libraries. He replied “Because they give me an anxiety attack. I am overwhelmed by too much choice” and then he wrote in my copy of his book : “To Roberta who is better at libraries than I am!”
A modest crowd heard John Carey deliver the Michael King Memorial Lecture today. Carey talked about the influences that shaped William Golding the novelist.
Golding was a complex man – a scientist who could talk knowledgeably with James Lovelock about the latest NASA rockets, a fine musician, a man free from conventional opinions, a deeply religious man, a socialist with a strong sense of class inferiority, a brave man in wartime who was deeply fearful in everyday life and a teacher who incited the boys in his class to violence as a psychological experiment.
Do only complex people write novels?
John Carey has been involved in some spirited argument during the festival. He believes in the accessibility of art to everyone and the clarity of his writing and his speaking certainly work to that point.
Michael King was another writer who as Rick Gekoski said introducing the lecture took “complex and culturally important things and made them available to everyone”. There is now the Michael King Writers’ Centre on the North Shore. It is a writer’s residence, offers short stay accommodation and runs a community outreach programme of public literary events, writing workshops and master classes.
Twenty-two years, 1000 words a day, 2.5 million words, two unpublished autobiographies and an unpublished autobiographical novel, many early drafts of novels – that was the mountain of papers John Carey had to climb to write his biography of William Golding. He felt he really knew his man at the end and he could literally see the author working out his books on the pages in front of him. William Golding: the Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies reveals a complex man with two sides – a loving husband and father, brave naval officer and valued teacher who “saw the seeds of all evil in his own heart”.
Carey’s own reaction to Lord of the Flies when he first read it involved the impact of the language. “I look for that feeling that poetry is happening” he said and he spoke strongly about that aspect of Golding to the hundreds of students he talked to earlier in the day.
A book reviewer for the Sunday Times over many years he collected many of his reviews into a book called Pure Pleasure where he had what was obviously the pleasure of walking around his bookshelves and pulling down things he remembered liking. A reader to his fingertips, he often remembers books by where he read them. At the moment Ian McEwen’s Solar is on the go, and he is about to start Robert Harris’s Lustrum. He loves a good thriller and recommends the Swedish duo of Sjowal and Wahloo.
He really values libraries. “I learned in libraries” he says about his teenage experience of using the Hammersmith Library to explore the world of books. “Being alone with a book seems to me an experience that has to do with knowing yourself and being with yourself and understanding yourself and inspecting your own mind”
Hear what John Carey has to say about books and reading:
An hour with Marti Friedlander was a joy. She has been photographing New Zealanders for 50 years and her memorable images have opened our eyes to our country. Marti came as an outsider, an “out there” personality who had to be a little wary with the reserved New Zealanders. She engaged with and liked her subjects from the start as she has always been drawn to how people engage with life. I thought she seemed enormously sensitive and sympathetic to the human condition, drawn especially to struggling artists and other people on the margins.
She decided very young that she would never follow the crowd. She doesn’t like being photographed and is not a “snapper” and feels there must be respect for the person you are photographing. She does recognise that in the digital age everyone has a camera and we are all photographers. Marti believes there will be a move back to black and white and photographers will go back to the dark room.
Her philosophy of photography:
No props no studio
Black and white and processing her own work in the darkroom
The joy of being utterly mobile
This was a total fan session. We all clapped and whistled for ages and we all loved Marti’s idea that she might put an advertisement in the paper saying she would be at a certain place at a certain to take people’s photographs in order to capture the diversity of Auckland today.
This session with Dick Frizzell (Dick Frizzell: The Painter, John Reynolds (Certain Words Drawn) and Ian Wedde was one of the most relaxed and unassuming sessions I have attended so far. I took it as a good omen that in a sea of arty black, the man who sat in front of me wore a brilliant pink and orange striped shirt – and it was.
No doubt about it, the art boys and the word boys come from two different galaxies. Both Frizzell and John Reynolds have however achieved a remarkable crossover in the art books they have just produced. They have turned books about art into art works in their own right. The art book publishing world will never be the same again. Reynolds referred to this as getting ahead of the pack in terms of biographical writing by “starting the distortion process on your own terms”.
Reynolds introduced a theory that I think every librarian will buy into. He maintains that proximity alone to great art works or books or objects of beauty will cause “the molecules to twitch”. All you have to do is be in its presence or “rub yourself against it” and the benefits will accrue. This is heartening for all of us who have looked at customers streaming past everything that libraries have to offer to sit glued to their facebook page on the computer. This does not mean that we have to push the users against the books Dean, or hide the computers behind piles of classics but rather that just being in the library environment itself could be life enhancing.
The final masterstroke for me was when Frizzell revealed that he is involved in the branding of the up-and-coming Rugby World Cup in 2011. For the first time I find myself looking forward to this event!!