The Don

My colleague’s recent post about Don McGlashan  reminded me that Mr McGlashan truly is a living legend (Dick Hubbard awarded him the title so it must be true). I didn’t get to interview him at  Auckland Writers and Readers, which was just as well when the temptation to bow down and intone “I am not worthy” in the manner of Wayne and Garth when they meet Aerosmith was almost overwhelming, and that was from the third row of the audience .

Such enthusiasm in a mild-mannered middle aged librarian caused some amusement to colleagues but I think it’s fully justified in this case.  It seems admirable and increasingly rare to just keep on making good work, year after year, to say that “the work itself is its own reward” and to be almost surprised that when you go on tour in the middle of a recession you still sell out around the country. 

Fiona Farrell talks about ‘poetry moments’  – those times when when you’re doing something else and suddenly a few lines of poetry come back to you. McGlashan did say at the songwriters’ session in Auckland that songs aren’t just poetry but I have poetry moments all the time with his songs, probably because they are about here; Highway One, not Route 66, and because for a long time it seemed nobody sang about here in a voice that recognisably belonged to someone from here. All the singers in New Zealand bands put on American or British accents.

Mount Eden brings to mind “Dominion Road is bending, under its own weight, shining like a strip cut from a sheet metal plate ’cause it’s just been raining” and crossing the Auckland Harbour Bridge it’s “lights across the water, a bracelet in these sky” In Wellington it’s “she loves Wellington, she was born there, she grew up out in the Hutt Valley”

At home in Christchurch it’s  “I sell sporting goods I’ve got a shop not far from Cathedral Square” and when in Aramoana the haunting “And oh of those AK47s for some collector down the line”. I’ve even had one on the Tube in London “talking loud in a Kiwi accent”. How could you possibly pick a favourite? (although mine is Andy)

I make it a rule to see Don McGlashan and whatever great band he’s assembled at least once a year. This year it will be in Wellington at the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, and I can’t wait.

Between the monster and the saint

Book signing
Book signing

76 years old and on his 27th book, Richard Holloway nicknamed the “Barmy Bish” has been for me a minor revelation. I can’t say I had massively high hopes, at The Auckland Writer and Readers Festival, of super enjoying an hour listening to an ex-Bishop burble on but hey, as always I was wrong. No burbling, not much religion, tears, laughter and a full-house.

Holloway resigned from the postitons of Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus Of the Scottish Episcopal Church in 2oo0 and now terms himself  an “after-religionist”, a label he prefers over the more loaded title agnostic. He still values the role of religion but is if anything even keener now without his mitre, he threw it in a river, to ponder the big existential questions and explore the nature of humanity both good and bad.

Holloway’s latest title Between the Monster and the Saint: Reflections on the human condition looks to explain and rate the differing responses to the “big questions” and he sees four major categories: those with strong religious conviction, those with a weak religious conviction, after-religionists like Holloway himself and those that just don’t get religion at all or are even hostile towards it. Of course Mr Richard Dawkins does in Holloway’s view fall into the latter category adding that “Dawkins needs to go back on the prozac and chill out a bit”. Holloway does see a role for atheism in combatting false idolatry; likewise he strongly emphasised the importance of writers, artists and general creativity in ridiculing authority figures to expose and temper corruption.

On forgiveness
On forgiveness

He talked briefly about his  energetic little dog Daisy and his sadness that the Christian church denies animals souls. He suggested that heaven might in fact be full of  homicidal turkeys, chickens, cows and pigs all looking for revenge, having suffered to make us fat.  Equally unappealing to him is the stereotype heaven with endless masses and choirs of angels.

The overriding message Holloway seeks to share, and he became quite emotional at this point, is the need for pity and the role of imagination in engendering empathy. Encounter with others is an essential part of understanding and with understanding comes a true humanity. At the end of the session  Aotea Centre volunteers had to almost forcibily eject several members of the audience, myself included, who had started impromtu conversations with complete strangers raving about the barmy bish, his courage and kindness.

Rod Oram on the next 100 years

Make no mistake that this was not a session for the faint-hearted, with at times dense discussion of economic and geopolitical futures. That didn’t mean a small crowd though – the theatre was packed – nor did it mean a humourless ninety minutes. Luckily for me, that Rod Oram was sitting outside beforehand, and was keen to join me afterwards for a chat. I spoke with the affable and astute Oram about his thoughts on the “wonderfully challenging” session, the merits of charging for water, the importance of books in the digital age, and more, in this ten-minute interview. Thanks Rod!

The Publishing Revolution

A couple of journalists, an academic and an editor took an hour to come the conclusion that nobody knows anything in this session. It was free and very crowded, as all the other free sessions have been, but the Aotea Centre staff had come over all concerned with Health and Safety issues so I was way up the back not blocking anyone’s ingress or egress.

This did afford me the chance to observe a lot of whispered conferring about some desperado sharing the space up the back who had to be sternly told not to interupt from the floor. When he did get the chance to ask a question he had to be reminded that it was questions they had asked for, not statements, to which he plaintively replied “why do they always cut me short”?

The back may be the place for observing bad festival behaviour, pity it’s my third-to-last session although the next two feature poets and rock musicians, so still plenty of opportunities for unseemly shenanigans.

So what is the future of print journalism? Rhonda Sherman of The New Yorker thinks the present model is over, it’s just a question of what the next model will be. Pamela Stirling of the Listener was more confident; in trying times people gravitate to brands they trust and with a 60% subsrciption rate they still trust the Listener. Martin Hirst, Associate Professor of Journalsim at AUT, doesn’t know whether he’s excited because he’s so terrified or terrified about how excited he is.

The panel seemed to agree (although I can’t be sure as I had some trouble hearing but I modelled through it and forebore from sharing this fact with the rest of the audience – more on that subject later) that we are moving from an analogue culture to a digital one and we don’t know how our children or grand-children will get their news. We can however be fairly sure it won’t be from some words printed on a piece of paper delivered to their gate in the morning.

Ponsonby: urban village

In 1957 it had one cafe and 15 second-hand shops – sounds like bliss to me but things can’t stay the same, especially not real estate on small sections close to town.

I’ve only been visiting Auckland regularly for about 10 years so to me Ponsonby has always been the hip strip of Ponsonsby Road; coffee and shops that stock Vivienne Westwood. I thought it was my South Island inablity to handle traffic that made crossing it a dance with death, then Metro said even the locals have trouble, but it wasn’t always like that.

So, I’ve never lived in Ponsonby and I never will so why did I enjoy a book about it enough to be keen to see and hear its writers? Because  Urban village; The story of Ponsonby, Freeman’s Bay and St Mary’s Bay is an impressive piece of social history with a proper bibiliography (you can take the girl out of the library …)

Peter Wells had whirled from New York and Judith Thurman to Ponsonby and Jennny Carlyon, Diana Morrow and a surprisingly large audience, most of whom looked as though they lived there. I had to laugh when Wells remembered a famous murder that happened on the corner of Richmond Road. Quick as a flash came a not-so sotto voce riposte from the back row “that’s Grey Lynn”.

As you would expect from two PhDs the book is the result of two years digging  into the layers of people who make up the history of the three areas and the authors presented it as a show and tell of slides, an original idea for a festival that is mostly about words rather than images.

Stiil keeping track of library mentions and not disappointed – when gentrification got into full swing the most popular books in the library were the do-it-yourself books – worringly for those who bought a renovated villa do-it-yourself plumbing and electricity.

Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellows Celebrate 40 years

Grudge match – Ernest Rutherford vs Katherine Mansfield – who are New Zealanders most proud of? K.M.’s got a House but she didn’t win a Nobel Prize, Ernest’s on the $100.00 bill but he didn’t do his best work on the French Riviera thereby allowing other New Zealanders to do the same.

Do the Menton fellows have an opinion? I didn’t ask them but I hope they’d pick a Modernist over a Physicist any old time.

Do they feel any pressure to live up to “I seen the little lamp” – one of the great lines in literature – when they put pen to paper in Menton? Do they actually do any writing at the Villa Isola Bella ? Some did, some didn’t, apparently there have been “some rum ones” but these Fellows were all on their best behaviour as they shared a favourite piece of Mansfield’s writing and in some cases talked about what they wrote while they were there.

Bill Manhire – Daughters of the late Colonel, wrote Lifted

Tessa Duder – read the  Claire Tomalin and Joanna Woods Mansfield biographies – wrote Is she still alive?

Stephanie JohnsonBliss, The woman at the store – wrote the first draft of The shag incident and of the play Strange children

Roger HallDaughters of the late Colonel

Russell HaleyAt the Bay

I don’t think Michael Harlow and Owen Marshall mentioned their favourite K.M. works or maybe I just forgot to note them down.

An hour with Martin Edmond

It took me precisely two sessions to break my new strictly fiction rule, but this guy was worth it. Martin Edmond has always had a fresh approach to the art of biography, an approach I particularly enjoy. He’s been a Montana Book Awards nominee (for The resurrection of Philip Clairmont) and winner (for Chronicle of the unsung).

Edmond is also an  interesting and thoughtful speaker about his work. The last time I saw him there was an air of almost painful honesty about his responses to questions, a far cry from some of the overly polished literary performers who give the impression that it’s all just a carefully scripted routine, if it’s Saturday this must be Auckland Writers and Readers.

Speaking with Peter Wells, himself a gifted memoirist whose Long loop home links him with Napier so strongly in my mind I thought of him during the relentless T.V. coverage of recent events in that city, Edmond had a dizzying number of new books to talk about.

Luca Antara: passages in search of Australia, started because Edmond wanted to write a another book  and didn’t know what it was. It’s a skilful blend of fiction and non-fiction, he loved writing it and it shows.

The supply party is a quest memoir about the ill-fated expedition of Burke and Wills. What does quest memoir mean? It means his publisher was on to him about a blurb.

Zone of the marvellous has the theme of what the Europeans were looking for when they set out for the great Southern land.

Next up is a book about Colin McCahon, or rather about the moment in 1984 when McCahon went missing for a couple of days in Sydney. McCahon got lost in the Sydney Botanical Gardens and was found in Centennial Park, and Edmond thought “I’ll find the 14 stations of the Cross, I’ll do that walk as often as I need to and I’ll spend the night in the park.” And he did all those things.

This thread of responding to artists has always run through Edmond’s writing, although he found the prospect of having to paint a picture terrifying as a small child. His first  published writings were art reviews, informed by his readings in art history at Wellington Public Library.

This session wins the award so far for most mention of libraries, not that I’m counting (much). In his early days as an aspiring writer Edmond didn’t actually do much writing, he just hung around in libraries and did ‘background reading’.

Edmond’s writing has a convincing and natural voice, so how does he prepare? Not by keeping a diary, but he does practice memory skills. All middle-aged people in the audience were instantly impressed and one at least resolved to ask him for some tips should the opportunity arise. Then she forgot to do it.

Emerging stars

I had a Meryl Streep in The deerhunter moment when reading Eleanor Catton‘s first novel  The rehearsal so I was really looking foward t hearing her speak about it, and to hearing from the other emerging stars of New Zealand fiction (no pressure).

Icelandic scholar Bill Manhire (thanks to Janet Frame I now know that about Mr. Manhire) was a strict taskmaster. It was all very organised –  writers alphabetical by first name, eight minutes to read and then to answer questions about their work, given time to think about a book they had been consumed by to be named at the end.

Anna Taylor was described in the programme as a ‘consummate performer’, a description she confessed left her a bit unsure of what to do but she read well from her collection Relief.  The collection explores people who find themselves in life situations where they are lost. Frank O’Connor said in The lonely voice that short stories deal with alienation and disappointment and this story did share those characteristics but it certainly made me want to read more.

Like the short story writers yesterday these young women were all  concerned with getting the voice right, although Catton confesed that the more time she spends thinking about the voice the less she knows about it.  Only Taylor’s preferences for form echoed yesterday’s panel. She loves to write short stories because she loves to read them, while van der Zijpp always wanted to do a novel.  Catton hardly ever reads short stories, she “adores novels” becsuse the reader can form a relationship with the novel in which they can forgive the novel its faults. She doesn’t do this with short stories.

Bridget van der Zijpp‘s first novel Misconduct won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (South East Asia and Pacific region). It’s about a woman driven to do an impulsive deed and the subject matter saw reviewers bandying the term chick lit about before running away from it, as in “with this subject matter this could be chick lit but it’s not”. Reviewers weren’t the only ones bemused by the subject of revenge; when van der Zijpp told people at parties women wanted to share their stories of revenge while men asked if it was autobiographical.

The rehearsal will be published by Granta in the U.K. and will also be published in the U.S. Catton confessed to feeling like what had happened after New Zealand had happened to the book, not to her. She is determinedly not thinking about the marketing campaign.

The observation in The rehearsal is so acute I asked Catton earlier in the festival if she had spent her entire high school years observing the way teenagers speak and behave. The  answer was no but she did confess in this session that her mum sometimes pleads with her “please don’t write that down”.

Bill Manhire continued the pleasing festival tradition of asking the writers to name a book everybody in the room should read.

Eleanor Catton – The watchmen – Alan Moore

Bridget van der Zijpp – The Believers – Zoe Helle

Anna Taylor – William Trevor, Alice Munro, T.C. Boyle (Emily Perkins is also a fan of Boyle’s)

Manhire’s pick was Robert Bolano – 26 66.

Middle-class terrorists a “story looking for an author”

How did a bunch of middle-class activists end up in a web of international terror and murder?

Stefan Aust has spent his career finding out, saying it was a once in a lifetime case of a “story looking for an author”. The Baader Meinhoff complex examines in gripping detail the lives of a group of German revolutionaries known as the Red Army Faction (RAF). They began as protesters against war and the state in the sixties and ended up committing arson, bombings, murders and kidnappings. In prison they went on hunger strikes, and won sympathy when the authorities force fed them.

Some of the of the group died in prison – there were questions over whether it was murder or suicides? Two had shot themselves, one had hung herself – but even though they were closely guarded, no-one heard the shots or found them until the following morning.

At his festival session with Mark Sainsbury, Aust decribed this chapter of German history as “the most interesting and dramatic time after the Second World War”.

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Sonya Renee, performance poet

One of the great things about festivals is the range of styles you encounter – the variations of eloquences, as an astute audience member described it on the opening night. I have yet to meet Sonya Renee, but here is an interview we did by email – I hope to catch up with her tomorrow in person. Listen to some performances online.

The poetry slam has reinvigorated poetry. What’s more appealing to you – the passion and energy of the performance moment or the well-crafted, considered printed version?

I am in love with both. I am mesmerized by the beauty and craft of language and gifted poetry. I am equally in love with the expression on the face of a person as they experience being moved by a poem and performance. Nothing brings me more joy than watching a talented poet and perform bring a piece to life. Nothing is more painful than having to watch a terribly written poem on stage.

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