En Route to Venice – Bill Culbert: Ian Wedde AWRF 2013

Search catalogueBill Culbert is a New Zealand artist possibly better known in Europe than in his native land, but that should change in 2013. In April he was awarded the first  honorary doctorate in Fine Arts from the University of Canterbury and on his return to England he set to finalising the plans for his representation of New Zealand at the 2013 Venice Biennale.

Making light work is the first  substantial work on “the ideas, materials and conditions that have formed Culbert’s art for the past fifty years”. It’s the closest most of us will get to Venice and should help the reader to opine in an informed manner when the Biennale works are unveiled.

Anna Hodge, an editor at Auckland University Press, described it as an expansive monograph and a meticulously researched feat of scholarship and friendship.

Ian Wedde is the author and he is just the man for the job of explaining Culbert’s art; Wedde is the Poet Laureate, a fiction writer, essayist, curator and critic who worked closely with Bill Culbert on the book.

Incorrigible eavesdropper that I am I was riveted to hear from behind me that “Ian’s really loosened up, I find his poetry a lot more accessible” and the response “the skill is the rendering down, not the bulking up”. Indeed.

Wedde pointed out that this was a talk about getting to Venice. If you’re not going, you can see the Creative New Zealand Road Show (if it comes to Christchurch). The trajectory of Culbert’s practice has taken him from learning about light at Hutt Valley High to creating works with salvaged materials; from  perforations on the wall with light shining through them, to floor mounted works, to installations of light.

In his long career, Culbert has asked the same questions although he has answered them in different ways; questions about patterning, about where is the surface, about what is depth and not depth and what is movement.

At the session question time Wedde got the question he was expecting – “can you give us a hint of what will be shown at Biennale?” He answered that  it will be a walk through space including some of the space used when et al represented New Zealand. Audible gasps from the audience. There will be objects and at the end there will be a structure. So far so good. Wedde speculates that this will be a 3-D hut structure made of flourescent tubes that can be stood in and the viewer will be able to look up and see the sky. Which he hopes will be blue.

So now you know.

“No moa, no moa…”

…in old Aotearoa. Can’t get ’em, they’ve et ’em, they’ve gone and there ain’t no Moa.”

Would I be able to resist the overwhelming urge to quote, or worse, sing those lines? Surely Quinn Berentson would have heard them many times before? The man has a Masters in Science Communication and those lines communicate the science of extinction in a commendably pithy way, so perhaps he would be understanding.

Moa the Life and Death of New Zealand’s Legendary Bird takes a bit longer to explain how “first we killed them, then we ate them, and then we forgot about them”. In 2009 Berentson set out to follow the trail of the creature that became so large and strange that they were almost as much mammal as bird.

He discovered that there was far more to the story of the moa (it should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘more’, not ‘mower’ – who knew?) than he had ever imagined.  It’s not just the story of the birds, but also of the scientists who ‘discovered’ them and what we know about them now.

Berrentson pointed out that this was not as easy as it might seem as everything about the giant birds, from their biology, to their evolution and then to their extinction has been argued over and re-examined for the last 170 years.

The moa story came along at just the right time. It had been newly discovered that the world had once been dominated by huge creatures that no longer existed. When moa remains were first discovered the public’s imagination was captured by it as a bizarre and grotesque monster. They featured on the front page of popular  newspapers and were world famous; often the first thing people had heard about New Zealand.  They were one of the first museum specimens to be photographed and every museum had its own skeleton.

While this was all very interesting the real fascination of this session was the personalities of the men who made the moa. Richard Owen , the ‘father of the moa’ was ‘extremely malignant’ according to mild-mannered Charles Darwin, who wrote him out of history after a long and acrimonious relationship. Talk about survival of the fittest.

It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Owen though, as he stole the credit for the work and ideas of Gideon Mantell, an amateur whose wife found the ‘Mona Lisa of fossils’  – considered to be the first dinosaur fossil found. This treasure happens to reside at Te Papa, although it is not on show. Snarky comment resisted.

Mantell’s obsession with fossils lead to his wife and his son severing contact with him. He suffered a terrible accident which resulted in his becoming a hunchback and was in such pain that he self-medicated, becoming an opiate addict. He was a Dr. so access to the opiates was not a problem.

Then his son Walter Mantell came out to New Zealand. He found moa bones that he sent back to his father in an attempt at winning his approval. But Mantell Snr had to give them to that evil genius Owen. When he sent his last batch back Owen’s perfidy was no longer a problem because Gideon Mantell was dead of an overdose.  You couldn’t make it up.

This was a great session and I could go on but really the best thing is to read the book. Although I must add that the moa is close to the top of the list of animals that could be cloned because we have recovered so much DNA. Coming soon to a swamp near you?

And I did resist singing.

Afghanistan is “a crossroads for every nation that comes to power”: William Dalrymple

First things first. You might like to get yourself a copy of Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple. I ended up having two separate late-night discussions about this session. The book uses Afghan sources for the first time to tell the story of the first Anglo-Afghan War:

In the spring of 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan for the first time. Led by lancers in scarlet cloaks and plumed shakos, nearly 20,000 British and East India Company troops poured through the high mountain passes and re-established on the throne Shah Shuja ul-Mulk. On the way in, the British faced little resistance. But after two years of occupation, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad and the country exploded into violent rebellion.

William was a brilliant storyteller, he moved swiftly from behind the lectern and strode the stage. He used slides to demonstrate the characters and location, and covered the story of the war from its origins, and repercussions, and linked it into today’s situation – and the similarities were chilling.

Lord Auckland
Lord Auckland, in Auckland.

Here are some of the interesting facts and observations that you will find in the book. I am only giving a sampling – there was lots of detail and information in this session (heck I took 13 pages of notes!):

  • In 1837 The East India company had the largest standing army in Asia. The modern equivalent would be Microsoft with nuclear weapons.
  • The British and Russians were both advancing, and “were going to meet in the unmapped territory – Afghanistan”.
  • A British intelligence officer saw Russian cavalry in a valley, riding into Afghanistan, and this incident “was the weapons of mass destruction of its day” – “a dodgy dossier equivalent” – using a single piece of intelligence to misrepresent what was going on.
  • Lord Auckland wasn’t a great leader.
  • Troops began assembling in 1839. Their kit included 300 camels carrying the regimental wine, 30 carrying cheroots and cigars, one carrying eau de cologne. “The only thing they didn’t think of bringing was a map”.
  • Afghanistan is very expensive to hold. They stopped paying off border tribes, and roads were cut off, postmen killed, and no merchants got through.
  • Sleeping with Afghan women does not go well. Alexander Burns picked the wrong woman to romance, and ended up with his head used as a football and his torso strung up in the bazaar. One of the Afghans said the fraternisation must stop “otherwise these English will ride the donkey of their desires into the fields of stupidity”.
  • On 6 January 1842, 18,500 men, women and children left their camp and walked out into the thick snow of the passes.
  • The death rate was appalling – by the second night only 10,000 are left alive. They walk up the pass in a blizzard and only 5000 come down.
  • More hideous ambushes and deaths occur.
  • One Dr Brighton gets through, the only survivor until later some Gurkhas and a Greek merchant get through.

The details of this story are known by Afghans, it is part of their national belief that they can repel all invaders.

Dalrymple had a lot to say on present-day Afghanistan: “There is nothing you can do in the world more expensive than war.” What then is the alternative? Dalrymple suggests “Capitalism creates a set of incentives that stop people going to war”. Some local Afghans have said “These are the last days of the Americans, next it will be China”. China has bought a lot of mineral rights. Afghanistan is “a crossroads for every nation that comes to power”.

Tattoo you: Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013

New Zealand tattoo: in the home of the tattoist’s art by Chris Hoult and Steve Forbes is a beautiful book: “a snapshot of the tattoo scene in 2011 and 2012”. Photojournalist Chris and writer Steve have made something rather special. Their session managed to convey the richness of the tattooing culture even though as they said “We’re photojournalists, we’re not noted for our oratory”. They showed a series of striking images as part of their presentation.

The book’s genesis was in an observation of Europe’s keen interest in ta moko. A sample chapter was created for the Frankfurt Book Fair, and it proceeded from there. Just after the book was given the go-ahead, the biennial tattoo convention in Auckland took place – so they had the potential for new material for their book.  After the convention, they decided focusing on a dozen artists wasn’t enough.

Steve Forbes then explained more about the history of ta moko and tattooing in New Zealand. Tattoo chisels have been found in our oldest archaeological dig sites. Mokomokai (preserved tattooed heads) once became a macabre commerce. Some chiefs who signed The Treaty of Waitangi drew their distinctive moko patterns as their signature. But as time moved on and ta moko declined, the last bastion was the kuia who wore the chin moko.

He delved more into the history including the Samoan influence, and the controversy around non-Maori like Robbie Williams sporting traditional designs.

So how many Kiwis are tattooed? Apparently we are the most tattooed people on earth – in 5 Kiwis are inked. 22% of women, 17% of men. Interestingly, only five of us in the crowd ‘fessed up to being inked – and neither of the two writers are.

The more recent tattooists and their business was explored with lots of great examples. Many of the current crop of tattooists are art school graduates and young, keen and smart business people.

Chris had some top tips if you are thinking of getting inked:

  1. Choose your design carefully.
  2. Don’t get tattooed under the influence of drink, drugs, or strong emotions.
  3. Get inked after New Year’s. Lots of people book in November, but then spend their holiday pay so often tattooists have free time early in the new year.
  4. “Beware because they are artists and they are looking for fresh, blank canvas – you”
  5. Cheap tattoos aren’t good, good tattoos aren’t cheap.

Tattoo Aotearoa sessionWriter Steve Forbes and photographer Chris HoultDonna and photographer Chris Hoult

Our monied world

Obviously C.K. Stead and Charlotte Grimshaw are a popular pair, it was a full house.  Steve Braunias was as much a participant as a facilitator with pithy one liners that had the audience eating out of his hand.

This apparently was the first time that Charlotte and her father had been interviewed together. Charlotte has always been intent on making it in her own right, even down to taking the name of her husband – Grimshaw – when she would have prefered to have kept her own name. She did acknowledge that she had finally made her own way and could now stand alongside her father as a writer.

The Stead household would have been an interesting one. Allen Curnow lived over the road, Frank Sargeson was a regular visitor. As Steve Braunias said C.K.Stead had “hung out with the dusty ancients that had invented New Zealand literature”. Charlotte recounted being upstairs as a young girl in her favourite room on her own enjoying the solitude, when she was joined by a man, with a beard and odd looking clothes who came and sat and the floor with her. She glared and him, and he glared and her until her father arrived and introduced her to James K. Baxter.

C.K Stead made the point that although his three children were all talented writers (his son is an art historian and daughter is the editor of the Atlantic Monthly), it is Charlotte who has inherited the “writing gene”.  Although she trained as a lawyer the urge to write was never far away.

The audience was no doubt completely different from the one that attended Don McKinnon earlier in the day. Stead was a member of the Labour Party at the age of seven, and he eloquently talked of his opposition to the Iraq war. As a reader you are always aware of their political persuasions but both stressed that they were writing about the human condition.  Charlotte also said that in the end she just wanted to write good dramas,  and at this point her father acknowledged that she was a great writer.  I wonder if this was news to Charlotte? Steve Braunias seemed to think so and came back to this statement a number of times!

I enjoyed this session very much, the questions were interesting and both participants engaging.  It was really good to see a father and daughter having such a good time!

Down with cupcakes: Everlasting Feast with Lauraine Jacobs

How can sitting all day listening to other people talk be so tiring?  Two more sessions at the end of the day, and I was in need of something to perk me up a bit. The Lauraine Jacobs session entitled Everlasting Feast – the title of her new book, unfortunately didn’t quite do the trick.  Perhaps it was because her interviewer Graeme Beattie had suffered an accident and couldn’t be there, so everyone was thrown a bit, or maybe it’s because I was feeling a bit jaded about cooking,  endless hours of watching My Kitchen Rules had taken its toll! I only had myself to blame.

Lauraine’s interviewer Nicola Leggett was also her publisher and was reluctant for Lauraine to go into too many details about stories from the book, she thought that it would be much better if we went out and got a copy for ourselves – not surprisingly! I found this to be a shame, if I had heard more about the stories and recipes it would have probably enabled me to feel a bit more enthusiastic, what we did hear however assured me that it is jam-packed with wonderful tales of Lauraine’s life, the people she has met, Julia Child being one of them –  the characters, events and of course food that she has enjoyed.

I did pick up a few tips. There is butter and then there is BUTTER apparently and it should be kept in tin foil, and if not used at once then freeze it. Bakers and cooks don’t usually converge – you are generally one or the other, Lauraine always has smoked salmon, eggs and a great piece of cheese in her fridge, her favourite ingredients are lemons, butter, salt, and  herbs. Eclairs could well be the next big thing, cup cakes are definitely out!

Sylvie Simmons – Mr Cohen Revealed

I'm your man at Christchurch City LibrariesSylvie Simmons, rock music writer and biographer, was in conversation with Noelle McCarthy about her latest work, I’m your man- The life of Leonard Cohen.

Simmons was born in London and went to a privileged girls’ school in which she was trained to come out to the Colonies and teach us how to embroider and place the correct cutlery on the dinner table. The thought of this repulsed her so she wrote a long list of all the jobs she could think of and narrowed the list down to three:

  • a spy (she rejected this idea because it would be ‘working for the man’),
  • a BBC Anchorman (until she realised she didn’t have a penis)
  • and a rock journalist.

She chose the latter and has gone on to become a world-renowned music biographer. As Noelle McCarthy said:

Sylvie Simmons’ books blow your mind. She doesn’t just write about people. She effects an introduction.

Leonard Cohen is currently receiving a ‘tsunami of love and attention’. It seems everyone everywhere is talking about him. In fact, throughout the Writer’s Festival we have heard Leonard’s dulcet tones over every loudspeaker in the venue so much so I’m beginning to feel if I hear ‘there’s a crack, a crack in everything’ one more time, I may just crack myself. He is touring, he has found happiness and ‘he wears a grin like an eight year old boy’.

Sylvie SimmonsLife wasn’t always so easy for the poet/singer/songwriter. In his younger years, Cohen suffered bouts of severe depression, shyness and perfectionism. He found performance very, very difficult. He says his depression wasn’t a matter of having the blues, it was ‘what can I do to get me through this day’.

Simmons spoke about Cohen’s love of women ‘horizontally and vertically’, his faith, his deep spirituality which drove him to spend five years in a monastery, his fascination with hypnotism and his love of his grandchild. Even within this short session, she breathed life into the legend of the artist. When she spoke I could see him standing in his kitchen, chewing up bread to feed to a baby bird that had fallen out of a nest in his garden.

Makes me want to go out and buy a blue raincoat.

“Mathematics is not as pure as you assume”: Sylvia Nasar and Masha Gessen at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival

Sylvia Nasar  - Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013
Sylvia Nasar

Ah, the sweet satisfaction of getting that first Festival session under one’s belt. It was non-fiction, scientific, and fascinating: Tragic Brilliance. American professor Sylvia Nasar wrote A Beautiful Mind about the mathematician John Forbes Nash. Russian journalist Masha Gessen wrote Perfect Rigour on another mathematical eccentric, Grigori Perelman, drawing partly on an interview Nasar once conducted with him. Not so tragic mathematician Steven Galbraith ably chaired the session, allowing each woman to tell their stories with plenty of breathing room.

Grigori Perelman was discussed in some detail. Here’s a snippet from Wikipedia for those who don’t know anything about him:

In 1994, Perelman proved the soul conjecture. In 2003, he proved Thurston’s geometrization conjecture. This consequently solved in the affirmative the Poincaré conjecture, posed in 1904, which before its solution was viewed as one of the most important and difficult open problems in topology.

Sylvia Nasar went looking for this enigma, believing his story had all the elements of “an academic bodice ripper”. Perelman had refused numerous awards and accolades for his work, and his proof had also been dramatically refuted as flawed by a Chinese mathematician. The New Yorker article Manifold destiny by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber gives a description of this.

After traipsing all over St Petersburg without success, she saw Perelman in an address where he had spent his college years. The hermit’s first words to her (knowing she had writter A beautiful mind): “You’re a writer, I didn’t read the book but I saw the movie with Russell Crowe”.

Masha Gessen  - Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013
Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen explored Perelman more, and gave details of a man separating himself from society, from his friends, and becoming a hermit. His work is astonishing. It took two groups of mathematicians 3 years to explicate his work (taking it from 8 pages to 800) – and Gessen said to explain it to the general population it would need to be expanded by another factor of ten.

After solving the Poincaré conjecture, Perelman was insulted by being offered jobs in the United States. He had wanted tenure years earlier, but now he felt “they were trying to buy his accomplishment”. Masha explained how he had refused various awards for reasons that were “extremely consistent logically”.

Sylvia Nasar gave us a compelling portrait of Grigori Perelman – emphasising how cultured he is, an amazing reader informed by English and Russian literature, a total history buff, and passionate about opera.

She spoke more about John Nash, and how his Nobel Prize almost didn’t happen, and that “Game theory was John Nash’s juvenalia”. Her book is:

A drama about the human mind, and the mystery of the human mind … There are so many stories in literature and theatre about a meteoric rise and a catastrophic fall.

Nash went from maths rock star, producing “one amazing deep piece of pure mathematics after another” to 30 years of losing everything, even teeth. His wife was his supporter through this decline, and sadly Sylvia observed that one of John’s sons is also schizophrenic – “as sick now as his father ever was”.

Masha Gessen immersed herself in topology for a year to understand the dramaturgy of Perelman’s proof  to understand”the light that the proof shone on mathematical structures”.

The discussion turned to the subject’s cooperation with books. Sylvia said John Nash was uncooperative, and Masha observed of her subjects Perelman and Putin:

I like writing about people I can’t talk to.

The session ended with two thoughts – Sylvia on the movie about John Nash A Beautiful Mind  – “people loved it all around the world … it put the audience in his shoes”. And Marsha on the sad decline of Grigori Perelman – winding down his relationships, a cultured man saying “I’m not reading anything at all”.

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An open book: New Zealand Listener Gala Night

Carol Hirschfeld is the perfect host for the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival Gala evening. She has a great turn of phrase, looks wonderful and has a passion for books, what more could you need? In her introduction she mentioned that there are over 12,000 people attending this years festival, up on last year and if you combine that with the 3000 school children that have been entertained over the last few days, then that is a lot of people enjoying books!

Each writer was given the task of telling a story around the theme of An Open Book. As you can well imagine everyone took a different angle, some very literal, others had a more tenuous link to the theme, but all were moving as well as entertaining.

I was impressed by these writers, solitary people at times I imagine, thrown into the limelight, alone on the stage recounting some really quite personal stories.They didn’t falter, they made us laugh – usually at their expense, and kept our attention. To be told a story as an adult is very powerful.  When do we ever have the opportunity to just sit and listen with no input, no nodding of heads or vague encouraging comments needed, no need to offer feedback or praise? What an indulgent pleasure.

Novelist Shehan Karunatilaka could well be a hit at this festival. He was born in Sri Lanka, but spent his teenage years at the prestigious Wanganui Collegiate. His story revolved around finding an adult magazine (of the sort we don’t have at the library) and although the pictures held some allure, he also found a story about Sting and the band the Police. This started him on a journey of reading, the library became a place of refuge from some of the bigotry he experienced at school but also a place where he could learn – everything!  Sadly I found his book Chinaman not to my liking,  (a book based around cricket was always going to have an uphill battle to win my favour), but I don’t think this will be a deterrent for festival goers. Jackie Kay was also very engaging so look out for Rachel’s interview of her tomorrow.

So, we have had a tantalising taste of things to come, and a free copy of the Listener which was a bit of a bonus so let it begin!

The Stations of the Leonard: Sylvie Simmons on Leonard Cohen

Sylvie Simmons signs booksSylvie Simmons is an award-winning writer and renowned music journalist. Her latest book is I’m your man: The life of Leonard Cohen. On Tuesday 14 May, she spoke (and sang, and played ukulele) in Christchurch. Her performance was brought to you via The Press Christchurch Writers Festival and her next appearances are at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

Sylvie was in conversation with Philip Matthews of The Press, and her musical interludes were accompanied by Adam McGrath of The Eastern on guitar (and occasional harmonies). They sang three Cohen classics: Sisters of Mercy, Famous Blue Raincoat and Suzanne.

Discovering Cohen

Search catalogue for I'm your manSylvie first heard Leonard Cohen on a compilation called Rock Machine turns you on (check out a YouTube playlist of the album). The Cohen song featured was Sisters of Mercy. It was:

Literally the day I hit puberty … something in that voice picked me up and threw me against the wall.

Sylvie said his poems and songs are often autobiographical, a combination of reportage and the metaphysical. And many are stories about women. Cohen sees “no difference between word and song” and in his discovery of the poetry of Lorca, he “heard the music of the synagogue”.

She had a three day interview with Leonard, and found him to be more himself on stage and off than any star (other than Keith Richards). He wore a suit, spoke in perfect sentences, and had a meticulous, elegant quality even in such simple things as making a cup of tea.

Cohen on stage and on tour

When Leonard Cohen first went on tour, he was nervous about exposing his songs on stage. He asked his lifelong friend – sculptor Mort Rosengarten – to make him “a mask of Leonard Cohen”. Sylvie suggests he “needed that extra layer of skin”.

He started the latest tours due to needing to recoup stolen funds. He found it hard to inhabit his earlier songs – coming as they did from a time of deep depression. Leonard played the role of “Rat Pack Rabbi” to the hilt. But nowadays he loves the life of touring, what he calls “the feeling of full employment” – he has even gone back to some of the older songs like Avalanche.

Biographer / detective

Cohen’s father died when he was young, and he lived with him mother and older sister. Women are a huge part of “The Stations of the Leonard”.

Search catalogue for Neil YoungSylvie says the biographer has to “go in like a detective” … ” a detective with a bit of poetry in my heart”. She felt she was polishing a gem in her writing, and noticed how Cohen is “disciplined in his quest and yet so emotional”. Her goal was to present his story “with diligence and heart”.

She has also written on Serge Gainsbourg and Neil Young . What the three men have in common is “each is a one-off”.

Questions from the audience

Audience members sought insider information on Cohen’s dramatis personae in certain songs.

One mentioned a New Zealander Graeme Allwright, a New Zealander who moved to France and became a famous singer (and interpreter of songs by artists such as Cohen in French). You can find some clips on YouTube including  L’Étranger / The Stranger Song which shows both Leonard and Graeme.

What (or who) next?

Who is the next artist Sylvie will write about? After her long sojourn in Cohen world –  “Cocktails and cabana boys” she said wryly.