Seven minutes with Bernadette Hall

CoverPoet Bernadette Hall was one of three Cantabrians who flew the flag for Christchurch at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. She kindly gave us some of her time for a bit of a chat. This seven-minute interview covers:

  • The ‘crucial and essential’ role of writer’s festivals in building a community of writers;
  • The Hagley Writers’ Institute  as a yeast in the mix of a healthy Christchurch poetry scene;
  • How Hall is trying to change her poems and is writing short fiction.

I started the interview (which was just after a chat by Emily Perkins, Damien Wilkins and Fergus Barrowman, and before a late lunch) by asking what it was like to attend the festival as a writer.

Bernadette Hall read with Alison Wong, Ian Wedde, Jessica Le Bas, Ben Brown, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman and Alicia Sometimes at the festival.

With luck she will appear at the  Christchurch Writers Festival in October.

Manifesto for a slow communication movement

I have arrived back at work from the Auckland Festival to find around 90 emails waiting for me.  Apparently I should consider myself lucky, according to John Freeman, editor of Granta magazine and author of Shrinking the World – the average office worker sends 200 emails a day.  In 2007, approximately 35 trillion emails were sent and received.  And it’s not just email.  We blog, belong to Facebook and Twitter, receive RSS feeds from everywhere, get all our news online and carry our i-Pods and Blackberries with us everywhere we go.

Freeman began his writing career as a book critic, but when he found he was spending more time reading the emails related to his reviews than reading the actual books he was reviewing, he realised something had to change.  Shrinking the World (US title: The Tyranny of Email) is his manifesto for a Slow Communication Movement, and is one of those deceptively simple little books that can cause a real re-thinking of your life, if you let it.

The desire to feel connected to those around us is a good one, Freeman remarked during Sunday’s session, but the finiteness of life means we must choose what to prioritise – it is physically impossible to have 1500 friends.

The problem, he says, is that email itself represents a form of intermittent reinforcement.  It is an enjoyable habit that is chemically enhanced – we get the reward we want from pushing the button or clicking on the icon, but only every third or fourth time we click.  And increasingly we are living simultaneously in the physical and the virtual world.  In any situation that removes us from electronic communication, we are painfully aware that we may be “missing stuff” – hence people’s reluctance to turn cell-phones off at the movies (or in a Festival session), and the fact that the minute the lights come up, the very first thing people do is lunge for their phones.  Freeman calls it the “electronic fidget”.

He says there is so much information in the world today, and that thanks to instantaneous electronic communication we have access to all of it, but asks, “Do we have the empathic bandwidth for any of this information to be meaningful?”  and again references the ‘1500 Facebook friends’ comment.

He’s not a Luddite, however.  Questions about the degradation of grammar in schoolchildren were met with a shrug and the comment that kids have enough smarts to be able to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate usage.  He’s also not saying we should not be using these technologies at all.  What he is suggesting is that we step back enough to recognise the damage that is being done to our attention span, our empathy, and our ability to process more than seven seconds of information at a time.

The back of the book offers both the manifesto for slow communication, and what he laughingly refers to as a ’10 step intervention programme’.   I’m going to try at least numbers 2, 3 and 10.  I’m thinking it’s going to be a hard road.

Imperial psychopaths, Microsoft with an Army

cover of The Last MughalWilliam 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 – Storyteller

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.

Sunday @ the festival : Festival highlights

Festival imageSo 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 …

We hope you have enjoyed the coverage and we look forward to your comments as we continue our conversations in the days ahead. Remember there are photos on the Christchurch City Libraries flickr and that you can view all of the festival posts on a single page.

Religion, War, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood

CoverOver 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

“Think Bill Bryson, But Only On Books”

CoverIn 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!”

John Carey Bookman

cover of William Golding the man who wrote Lord of the FliesTwenty-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:

Seven Days in the Art World

Having ‘slept on’ my thoughts about this session, sadly yesterday’s audio wrap-up comment about my ambivalence still stands this morning.

Sarah Thornton is an amazing speaker and clearly an incredibly intelligent and talented writer, and I remain committed to reading her book (it’s in my suitcase right now).  However, I really did find the session hard-going.  Granted, it was at the end of a long and busy day, and as I said, I have not yet read the book.

However, this shouldn’t have made any difference – you can never assume that a festival audience is as heavily invested in a work as you are, or that they know and recognise every name and artwork and quotation you are offering.  This is not, by the way, a criticism of Sarah Thornton, but rather of the chair who, somewhat ironically, I thought, perfectly illustrated some of John Carey’s comments from the What Good Are the Arts? session.

I guess all I can offer from this session is the comment that for those who do move within those fabled ‘art circles’, it would have been hog heaven.  And there were those in the audience who clearly do, and are, and were.  For the rest of us, I think, though, it was a little like being thrown into a combination dictionary/encyclopedia/phone book.

I am not unintelligent, not badly-read, and not without an openness to discovering new things and learning new ideas.  But there is no point of entry if you have no idea who these people are, what they do, and why they said what they did.  And surely the point of a public festival session such as this is to make more people more invested in reading, expanding horizons, and discovering newer and deeper ways of appreciating the arts, rather than leaving us adrift on a sea of name-dropping and intellectual show-off-ism.

I’m now hiding under the bed, waiting for the intellectual wolves to start pounding at my door and climbing down my chimney.  Oh, and I’d also be really keen to hear from anyone else who was at the session and who may have had a different experience of it. Anyone?

What good are the arts?

Featuring John Carey (What Good are the Arts?), Denis Dutton (The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution), and Sarah Thornton (Seven Days in the Art World), Friday’s What good are the arts? session has left me with questions rather than answers, and so in the spirit of giving I’m passing them right on to you.  Please also bear in mind that my own educational background has taken the literature, libraries and psychology route, rather than the fine arts and high culture route, and that my current heroes include a lurching zombie and a man wearing an iron suit.  Oh, and check out the Friday night audio wrap-up to hear me possibly insulting one of the world’s best and brightest experts in the art world.  I am on fire here.

Here are a selection of some of the questions I wrote down.  Some are comments from the speakers, some came from the audience, and some are just my own little musings.  Ready?

1.  Is there a rule that art critics and art writers can only use words of more than 5 syllables, all of which must end in -icity, -osity, -ality or -ism?

2.  Is calling someone a neuroaesthetitian a compliment, an insult, or a job description?

3.  If, as the Auckland Festival says, Ideas Need Words, does that make literature the highest form of art?

4.  Can anyone, in fact, claim that there IS a highest form of art, or is all art appreciation an absolutely solitary and individual matter of personal taste?  In other words, are there, as Denis Dutton says, universal and cross-cultural eternal values, or is it the case, as John Carey posits, that “you cannot be another being”, thus making it impossible for anyone to pass judgement on anyone’s taste?

5.  Is there a a shop where you can buy paisley cravats and smoking jackets?  And if so, can someone take me there right now?

6.  If the purpose of art is to make us better people and to draw us closer together, does that make football a higher form of art than painting or poetry or sculpture?

Well, people?  I just know you all have ideas and opinions about these questions …  (Just please don’t get all shouty at me.)