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.

And the winners are…

not a winner in these awards but the Commonwealth Writers Prize is probably a good consolation prize
Christos Tsiolkas - not a winner in these awards but he's probably not too bothered since the Commonwealth Writers Prize is quite good too.

Well, it was an intense period of listening and watching and reading and writing “up north” but we’ve come out the tail end of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival a little wiser, a lot tireder, and much the richer for the experience.

Joyce and I have been brainstorming a little on our respective festival experiences and feel that there are a few noteworthy folk who deserve some unofficial accolades from us, so here are our picks for festival faves…

Smartest, sexiest silver fox award – Marcus Chown.  Tintin hair, big brain and easy charm got him the gong.  A strong showing also from Todd Blackadder in this category but at the end of the day quantum physics was the winner.  David Geary also gets an honourable mention.

Best Chair – Voting was split in this category due to our attending different sessions.  I rate David Geary as chair in the Greg McGee and Sam Mahon session, with his ability to gently take the mickey without making it all about him.  Joyce awards this prestigious prize to the ubiquitous Paula Morris.  With the added bonus of not having a cold at this year’s festival Paula was as always knowledgeable, genuinely interested in her interviewees and terribly, terribly droll. Continue reading

Volunteers part of festival success

During the festival one of the many chats I had with people was this lovely interview with Patricia Kay from North Shore Libraries. In this three-minute interview, she describes the roles of volunteers, and some of the perks of the job.

Later this week we’ll have audio of interviews with corporate and economics commentator, Rod Oram, and since it’s New Zealand Music month a chat with Don McGlashan.

Festival finale

Deliriously happy to be back with my fingers tapping my own clean keyboard and not sticking to the keys in every seedy Internet cafe on Queen Street, I’m ready to share my last random thoughts on the festival.

Best chair

  • Kate De Goldi.

Best session

  • Songwriting with Don McGlashan and Jason Kerrison.

Best dressed audience

  • the ladies who lunched with Judith Thurman.

Best answer to a question

  • When asked “what do you like best about writing”, Martin Edmond replied “sentences”.

Most mentions of libraries in a session

  • Martin Edmond and Peter Wells in an hour with Martin Edmond.

Really random observations

  • Non-fiction sells – these were the sessions with the big audiences
  • Men come out to Writers and Readers in Auckland
  • Good writers don’t just sit down an produce deathless prose. They actually apply themselves consistently, they overcome procrastination, they ditch things that aren’t working and some of them spend a lot of time lying to their publishers.

Admirable trend

  • Wearing apron-like garments. Apparently it’s been around for at least three years according to an Auckland friend. Not in the South Island I don’t think but then I don’t get out much.

Deplorable trend

  • The tendency for the few who can’t hear to shout this fact at panellists the rest of can hear perfectly adequately. Lloyd Jones handled it deftly last year in Christchurch when he invited a belligerent woman who felt compelled to share that she had paid to hear him but couldn’t to share the sofa on stage. Max Cryer told me once that if there are grey heads in the audience the amplification can’t be too amplified but do the rest of us have to suffer interuptions and just plain rudeness? Get a hearing aid and concentrate I say.

Festival resolutions

  • Be more tolerant
  • Read a little poetry every morning, like Stu Bagby
  • Always take the opportunity to tell a writer you admire their work
  • Stick to fiction (mostly)
  • Read more

Final festival wrap-up

After an intense, enjoyable, fast-paced last day of the festival fever, we present our last audio wrap up. We have been proud to represent the library and hope you have enjoyed the coverage, which we have tried to make entertaining and informative.

The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize added so much to the festival. It brought variations of eloquence to our ears and eyes from around the world, and impressing all the audiences, I am certain, with the breadth and depth of the all to uncommon wealth of writers which we were lucky enough to see.

Our final report is a touch under 14 minutes long.

Keep an eye on the blog for more interviews with Commonwealth Writers’ prize best book winner Christos Tsiolkas, Rod Oram, Don McGlashan, and for a slightly different take, Patricia Kay, one of the volunteers who has been with the festival since day one. We also hope to have follow-up interviews with authors in the near future, and more photos will be added to the library flickr soon. If you have questions or comments about any aspect of the festival or the coverage, leave a comment – we would love to hear from you.

Now get thee to a library 🙂

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.

Diggers, hatters & whores

With a title like that you know that Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s latest book is not going to be a staid or plodding historical piece and you’d be right. Eldred-Grigg has always had a knack for bringing distant times to life, whether it be in fiction, or as in this case non-fiction. This morning he delivered a session discussing Diggers, hatters & whores: the story of the New Zealand gold rushes and it was pretty interesting to hear about a period of New Zealand history that has never really been sufficiently investigated before.

The session began with a discussion of gold, which is something I hadn’t expected but Eldred-Grigg thought it worth pointing out that it was not universally cherished and hoarded across cultures.  Certainly the charms of the soft yellow metal have long been known by European cultures but Chinese culture favoured silver, and of course Māori, though aware of the presence of gold in southern rivers, preferred the toughness and cool beauty of pounamu.

From there he traced the beginnings of the gold rush phenomenon, one which never really took root until modern industrial capitalism provided the energetic drive and motivation for large numbers of people to seek, not necessarily riches, but freedom from a life of servitude and drudgery.  Gold could buy this freedom and so many young men followed that dream in gold rushes in all parts of the world including our own corner of it.

There were many things to take away from this session but probably the one that I found most interesting, and that Eldred-Grigg came back to himself a few times was that our notion of who these “diggers” were is quite incorrect.  The romantic image of an old, wizened, “man alone” character is, he says, a fiction.  Diggers generally worked in teams or “parties” and were usually young, energetic men from places like Germany, Scandinavian, Britain and Ireland.  The Chinese came too of course, often in families.  Those diggers that did live alone were the exception rather than the rule, so much so that they were known as “hatters” possibly because their solitude made them a little mad.

And, of course, yes there were whores but also many women preferred to sell grog in the goldfields, sometimes legitimately, sometimes on the sly.

It was an incredibly illuminating session and I’m glad I was able to go to it before I spoke with the author this afternoon.  Check back here on the blog for that interview which I’ll post in the not too distant future.  Um, it’s gold?


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.

An hour with Mohammed Hanif

There was another great turnout for Mohammed Hanif, who won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book last night. Ali Ikram was our genial host, doing his duty with aplomb.

Hanif grew up on a farm, joined air force and flew planes before he drove a car. He then worked for the BBC as a journalist. Ikram asked about the significance of mangoes, saying it was not a throwaway title.

Hanif said his publisher told him novels with soft fruit in the title have a different connotation, However, in Pakistan the context is quite clear. The mangoes had a special part in the death of 1980’s bombing of dictator Mohammed Zia Ul-haq’s plane – it was one of the twenty-two theories of how the plane’s demise came about.

Continue reading