“Everything else is just filler” Sex and Death Salon: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Host Victor Rodger warned that this session was going to be dirty and lowbrow. I intend to make this blog as dirty and lowbrow as the editors will let me! Featuring poets Tayi Tibble and Chris Tse, and authors Stacy Gregg and Emily Writes, this was a no holds barred, late night sessions about things you might not want to mention at the dinner table. Or if you do mention them you might there might be awkward questions and emergency visits to Urban Dictionary.

Stacy pointed out that after sex and death everything else is just filler. Which is a little tricky for her given that she writes books aimed at children, therefore she has to feature death. Her subject is horses and she feels little frustrated that horses are often associated with sex. Jilly Cooper has a lot to answer for…

Emily brought the house down with a reading of *that* review of The Legend of Tarzan, explaining that she had just stopped breastfeeding when she wrote it and how a low tolerance for alcohol. Frankly, given the deliciousness of Alexander Skarsgård I think it a masterly and appropriate hymn to the male form.

Chris also brought the house down with his wonderful poem ‘Fun until it gets weird’ about playing Cards Against Humanity with your mum and aunties and having to explain bukake to them (do not Google this on a work computer). And then writing a poem about the experience that your family ask you to read out at Christmas. However, Chris also reminded us that we shouldn’t put older people in a box – they’ve been round the block themselves a few times. He also revealed that he felt dragging up took him most out of his comfort zone, and that his drag name is Angela Merkin, which I love!

Tayi read us her gorgeous poem ‘Johnsonville Cindy Crawford’, about the realities of growing up with an attractive mother, and remembering playing Tomb Raider, with Lara Croft and her big triangular boobs. If she could go back in time she would like to 1975 to take part in the Land March.

I don’t know if this session quite explored sex and death and taboo quite as much as I anticipated – death didn’t really get a look in, not even a petite mort. However, I do know that I laughed a lot, heard some great writing, discovered some cool people, and was rather envious of Stacy’s silver boots.

Follow our coverage of WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Grieving and Living: What Abi Taught Us – WORD Christchurch

Lucy Hone. Image supplied
Lucy Hone. Image supplied

‘Buy This Book’. I have never, in all the many blogs I have written started a blog with these three words.

Lucy Hone wrote What Abi Taught Us after the traumatic death of her 12 year old daughter Abi in a car accident. Abi left the house to go for a drive with family friends. And she never came back. How does one cope with a life event like this?

Standing alone centre stage, without even the use of the podium provided, Lucy Hone reached out to all of us to share her strategies for survival in the face of one of life’s crueller events.

She made us think about what resilience meant to us, that it is not a suit of armour that you don, but rather a way of leaning into pain and hardship that allows us to feel the emotion while continuing to function in our lives, which just carry right on.

She used her studies in Psychology and  qualifications in Resilience Psychology to work out what strategies we need to nurture our own mental health – even in the face of the unthinkable.  The three Determinants of Happiness are: 50% from your genetic start point ( the Mum and Dad stuff), 10% from outside influences (winning the lotto or surviving an earthquake) and 40% from our own thoughts and actions. And it is in that wriggle room of 40% that Hone has developed the five strategies that we all need:

What Abi Taught UsStrategy 1 – Choose where you focus your attention

We don’t have infinite processing capacity. Our brains can only manage 7 pieces of information at a time. Genetically (and understandably, for survival’s sake) we are hard-wired to notice the bad stuff. We need to practise noticing what is going well. People who have higher gratitude scores have better well-being. Lucy has a sign in her kitchen – a bright pink poster and on it the words: ACCEPT THE GOOD. She refers to it often.

Strategy 2 – Never Lose Hope

Lucy paid tribute to the building we were in – the brand new The Piano – as a concrete manifestation of hope for Christchurch. She stressed how important it is to recognise that we all have some big hopes and many smaller ones. When tragedy occurs, turn to your smaller hopes. Ask yourself: What am I hoping for now? It may be something very small. Go for that smaller hope.

Strategy 3 – Nurture Your Relationships

Good relationships are a great predictor of happiness. Be careful with your communications, even when you are in pain. It takes 5 positive interactions to cancel out one negative communication. The negative is unfortunately very powerful.

Strategy 4 – Ask yourself: Is this thing helping or harming me?

Lucy and her husband chose not to view the motor vehicle in which Abi lost her life. They asked themselves this question and the answer was No, this will not help. It is a very simple tool. It will help you get up out of bed, put one foot in front of the next and grieve and function at the same time.

Strategy 5 – Understand that struggle is a part of life

Sometimes we just have to be brave. Sometimes the happy FaceBook version of our life is so far from the truth. We have to allow ourselves to feel sad. Resilience Therapy understands that the bad stuff will happen – just don’t get stuck in one emotional state for too long. Try not to bottle it up. Lucy worried that she might cry in this presentation. Then she thought – So What. Crying is just crying. She grieves while simultaneously living.

Abi loved the book Allegiant from the Divergent Trilogy and had highlighted a passage from it. Lucy found this passage after Abi had died. She sees what she is doing as being like a line from that highlited quote, that she is making:

the slow walk towards a better life

There was not a dry eye in the Concert Hall at 12pm.

Thank you for talking to us Lucy.

More WORD Christchurch

Norman Kirk – 6 January 1923 – 31 August 1974

Prime Minister Norman Kirk, M.P. for Sydenham, formerly M.P. for Lyttelton and Mayor of Kaiapoi , died on 31 August 1974.

Portrait of Norman Kirk. K E Niven and Co :Commercial negatives. Ref: 1/2-230154-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22842895

Growing up in a staunchly Labour-ite household, he loomed large in my childhood – yes, he was a big man – and his death was a shock. He was the Mighty Totara, whose death should not have happened so early (he was only 51).

But childhood memories are notoriously unreliable – I remember a song where the words “Big Norm” seemed to occur with great frequency and affection ! – so what kind of man was he really, and what did he achieve ?

From the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography and NZHistory:

  • Norman’s first job was roof painting, and he worked a variety of jobs, qualifying as an engine driver.
  • Despite leaving school by the age of 13 (he attended Linwood Avenue School), Norman was an avid reader, and established the New Zealand Authors’ Fund.
  • He built his own family home in Kaiapoi, from concrete blocks he made himself.
  •  He was described as having ‘a resolute chin, a twinkling eye, a charming smile, and an impish wit’, and became a renowned debater.
  • In October 1953 Norman was elected mayor of the Kaiapoi Borough Council. At the age of 30, he was the youngest mayor in the country and continued to work at the Firestone Tyre Company.
  • On 9 December 1965, 42-year-old Norman Kirk became leader of the parliamentary Labour Party, and leader of the opposition.
  • Kirk led Labour to victory with a majority of 23 seats on 25 November 1972.
  • In April 1973 his  government refused to grant visas to a South African rugby team because the touring Springboks would be racially selected.
  • He applied pressure to the French to stop testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific, then sent a a frigate to the test area ‘to provide a focus for international opinion against the tests’.
  • His government reformed Māori land law – the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 set up the Waitangi Tribunal. See television footage of Waitangi Day ceremonies on 6 February 1973.
  • His health suffered under a heavy workload and he died at Our Lady’s Home of Compassion hospital in Island Bay, Wellington.  He had a state funeral, which was attended by thousands of New Zealanders.

Gallery - Norman Kirk The First 250 DaysCover of The Mighty Totara      Cover of Diary of the Kirk years
Read more:

Love, Death and Art

Smoke gets in your eyesI love that libraries allow us to know more about topics that do not easily crop up in conversation. Topics that maybe make us feel a little uncomfortable, like these three books that were returned to a sunny suburban library near you.

The first book to plop into returns that day was: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (& Other Lessons from the Crematory) by Caitlin Doughty. Just twenty something, Ms Doughty got a degree in Medieval History and took a job at a crematorium. She’s young, beautiful, clever and funny, and she becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead.

Her book answers (amongst other things) all those questions about crematoria that you have ever wanted to ask, like: How many bodies can you fit in a Dodge van? According to the author we have cut ourselves off from death and this is a mistake. As Kafka famously said “The meaning of life is that it ends.”

the art of taxidermyI was fascinated and I did not want to relinquish Doughty’s book. But I did, because the second book to come through the returns slot was The Art of Taxidermy by Jane Bastoe. What are the odds? I gave it a quick flick through but I am not a big fan of taxidermy and some of these photos made me feel quite queasy.

The very next book to come back to us was a book on an extremely sensitive subject – beheadings. Entitled Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found the author is Frances Larson. The first sentence reads:

Josiah Wilkinson liked to take Oliver Cromwell’s head to breakfast parties.

This book provides research into mankind’s long relationship with beheading – which we are horrified to witness still happening to this very day. It is a well researched, serious book.

But readers are nothing if not variable – and I never thought I would say this, but I was relieved to see that the next five returned items were all Large Print Mills and Boons.

So far I haven’t mentioned the name of the library concerned because that really is totally irrelevant. But let’s just say that on a cold, dark, rainy winter’s night, when we  close up at 6pm, I will have parked my car as close as I can to Spreydon’s library building!

Norman Kirk – 6 January 1923 – 31 August 1974

It is 40 years since the death of Prime Minister Norman Kirk, M.P. for Sydenham. He had earlier been M.P. for Lyttelton, and Mayor of Kaiapoi.

Some facts from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography and NZHistory:

  • Norman became a foundation pupil at Linwood Avenue School in April 1928.
  • At school Kirk quickly learned to read. He developed a lifelong passion for libraries and books and acquired an extensive vocabulary.
  • He built his own family home in Kaiapoi.
  • Norman worked as an engine driver at the Firestone factory in Papanui, and cycled between Kaiapoi and Papanui to work.
  • On 9 December 1965, 42-year-old Norman Kirk became leader of the parliamentary Labour Party, and leader of the opposition.
  • Kirk led Labour to victory with a majority of 23 seats on 25 November 1972.
  • He applied pressure to the French to stop testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific, then sent a a frigate to the test area ‘to provide a focus for international opinion against the tests’.
  • His government reformed Māori land law – the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 set up the Waitangi Tribunal. See television footage of Waitangi Day ceremonies on 6 February 1973.
  • He grew progressively more unwell, and died in our Our Lady’s Home of Compassion hospital in Island Bay on Saturday 31 August 1974 of ‘congestive cardiac failure’ and ‘thromboembolic pulmonary heart disease’. He was 51. Kirk was survived by his wife and family. He had a state funeral, and it was attended by thousands of New Zealanders.
View image of Norman Kirk's coffin
Alongside the coffin of the late Prime Minister Norman Kirk at Parliament House, Wellington. Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: 1/4-021782-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22870322

Gallery - Norman Kirk The First 250 Days

Cover of The Mighty Totara Cover of Diary of the Kirk years
Read more:

Have you lost someone you love recently?

Cover of How to say goodbyeLoss of a loved one is so final and no matter how much we may think we are prepared for it, say if a loved is unwell we don’t wish to see them suffer, or that dying is the natural order of things in our life-cycle, are we really prepared for such finality? I think not.

Recently I lost my Mum. I know I wasn’t prepared even though my Mum was very ill and I was relieved she would not have to continue with such poor quality of life; the gobsmacking reality when it came of the final loss of the connection with my parents (my Dad died some 30 years ago) was heart wrenching.

Clenching our teeth we go through the somewhat short process of farewelling them. And what then? An ocean of sadness, the finality is abrupt and total.

I wonder if the Māori concept of farewelling their lost ones may be more cathartic – a Tangi somehow seems to be a more complex and genuine celebration of the life of those they farewell. Just a thought.

If you are going through a grieving process consider having a look at some of the resources at Christchurch City Libraries which may well help you in your time of grief:

Search our catalogue:

William Rhodes Moorhouse

photoWilliam Barnard Rhodes Moorhouse was a young man with a taste for speed which ultimately led to his own death in World War I, but also the deaths of two people, one on New Brighton Beach.

Although born in England in 1887, through his mother he was affiliated to Taranaki, Ngati Tama and Te Ati Awa and by marriage to the family of William Sefton Moorhouse of Canterbury.  He went to Harrow Public School and briefly, Trinity College, Cambridge.

In 1909 he obtained his pilot’s licence and when war broke out  he joined the Royal Flying Corps. He was the first aviator to be awarded the Victoria Cross.  In a tragic counterpoint, his son William was killed in World War II during the Battle of Britain, shortly after being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The Truth newspaper on the 8 February 1913 reported:

Grim memories … were aroused in Christchurch when the local dailies printed this cablegram: London 29 January, W. H. R. Moorhouse, the aviator, was fined 20 pounds for criminal negligence. While motoring, he killed a farm labourer.

Moorhouse… is … William Barnard Rhodes Moorhouse, who started his sanguinary career … on 22 March 1907 when, 19 years of age, accidentally it was held, he killed a boy of seven … Frederick … Gourlay, on … New Brighton beach. He was making a … trial of his motor cycle … when the child was … bumped into the next world. Moorhouse … charged with manslaughter and committed for trial … was the son of wealthy … parents and the Grand Jury, acting up to the disgraceful traditions of grand juries in Christchurch, protected one of their own … and insulted the lower court by bringing in ‘no bill’.  …. The police were prompt in laying a fresh information …. The magistrate [was] satisfied that there was a prima facie case …. At the August sittings of the Supreme Court, Mr. Justice Chapman devoted the greater part of his address to the Moorhouse manslaughter case ….

The Grand Jury brought in a true bill and the young man had to stand … trial like any common person although he had the best brains … that money could buy. Skerrett K. C. had with him barrister Wilding for the defence.

… The beach had been used, with the acquiescence of the New Brighton Borough Council,  for … motor bike races …. A young man named Ritchie shot past with the speed of as meteorite escaping from its creditors and Moorhouse followed …. Gourlay, apparently transfixed with terror, was biffed into Kingdom Come. Lawyer Skerrett … let … loose in a remarkable address to the jury who were asked if … Moorhouse were to start his manhood with the brand of Cain on his brow which … would give his enemies … an opportunity to point him out as a convicted felon. Moorhouse … would some day take the responsibilities of a rich man …. If he had been a poor man’s son, it wouldn’t have been thought necessary to have proceeded with the charge against him ….   The jury … returned a verdict of not guilty … “

Read more in Papers Past:

This post is by Richard Greenaway, local history expert at Christchurch City Libraries. He is always uncovering great stories from the early days of the city. This one is from early New Brighton.

Shriver interview: So much for that ‘most entertaining book this year on death and illness’


I started the interview by asking Lionel Shriver about her choice of excerpt from So Much for That for the reading at the Festival Opening Night.

Well, it’s a sex scene so it takes a little nerve to read it aloud. Sex is usually done so badly in fiction, I guess in a way I was showing off –  or at least showing – which is to say that sex scenes really function in fiction when they are more than sex scenes. That is they can’t just be some gratuitous conclusion, they have to be accomplishing something, they have to be as justified as any other scene. I was particularly interested in that scene and exploring the effect of grave illness on the sexual relationship in a marriage.

The book has very serious themes, yet there are other themes which help create a balance.

Yes. I think a better way of putting it would be to say that they are serious themes but they are not explored in a relentlessly serious way. The hardest thing for me to get across to readers of this book is that it really isn’t a grisly, grim experience. It’s meant to be entertaining people who do love the book get that pretty soon and once they have got that I have found that people don’t have any trouble reading this book. A few reviews, even though they have been positive have done the book a disservice by talking up the nature of the dark, depressing material. Missing the point that this is still meant to be fun.

It is through your terrific dialogue that all of this comes true for me. How did you get to be so good at dialogue?

I really love dialogue, I like writing it and I like reading it in other peoples’ books. You and I would be alike we take our pleasure in novels in the same way. I love it novels really come alive and it has an almost cinematic quality.

Do you think that you need to be a good speaker in order to be able to write good dialogue?

Not necessarily. I think it helps in public events to be able to speak well and I thrive in public speaking situations. The bigger the audience the better. The hardest thing to pull off is the bookstore readings with just two or three people. That really takes poise.

Do you think that a writer of good dialogue needs to be a good listener?

Up to a point, I wish I listened better. I wish I remembered more.

Despite its serious themes, I did not find this a depressing read, in fact I found it quite uplifting.

I hope it is , but not in that creepy redemptive way that has become so trite but I did think that my happy ending is well earned, not only have the characters earned it, but the author and the readers have also earned it. It was always my intention that So Much For That would have a soft landing at the end.

In So Much For That Shep has fabulously frivolous thing in his fountains and a capital-A Afterlife vision. How about you?

I write novels – that is my fabulously frivolous activity! Just like fountains, what’s charming about novels is that they are magnificently unnecessary! If I had only a year to live – not enough time to write a novel, honestly I wouldn’t go off somewhere but would inhabit my daily life , perhaps more fully. I’d stay home, I like ordinary life, I think that ordinary life is not ordinary.

I’m going to lob a word at you and I’d like you to free range over that topic and your word is libraries.

OK I’m a big fan of libraries. It is on the public record that I hope in due course to will my assets to libraries of some kind. There are some tax issues to resolve but in general I think they are the most benign of institutions. I think it is difficult to come up with benign institutions. They represent everything that is important to me about my life. I’ve depended on them for most of my life and now lately it’s not just for books, but for CD’s, everything. I just think that they’re expressions of social generosity.

How do you feel about the changes that are taking place in libraries with the introduction of new technologies?

As long as books are not marginalised, I don’t have a problem with it. In the same way I don’t have a problem with e-books as long as people are still paid for their work. I think it is important that libraries embrace new technologies or they may be dooming themselves to obsolescence. I recently had my broadband cut off for a month which was like being exiled to Siberia and I used my local library in London to stay connected to the world and that was a service that I was very grateful for.

Do you think that readers who have loved your previous books will love So Much For That?

This is definitely the most entertaining book this year on death and illness. It is not a depressing book. It is not about illness itself, but it’s about being around someone who is ill and that happens to most of us sooner or later. The problem is that the carer is not supposed to have any problems. Your problems don’t matter , it’s the needs of the person who is ill that are paramount. Glynis becomes tired of Shep being so perfect and that is one of my favourite scenes in the book.

What is your opinion of  book clubs and reading groups? Groups of women with glasses of wine and savoury snacks dissecting your book, how do you feel about that?

I think it’s great! I hope they have more than one glass of wine. I don’t belong   to one myself, I am not a joiner and I don’t belong to groups of any description. I’m a relatively solitary person. I think book groups are one of the healthiest cultural phenomena to come along in quite some time. They are a vehicle for talking about some slightly more elevated matters. Book groups provide a nice middle ground between solitary reading and normal socialising. It’s also great when book groups disagree. It is OK to hate a book.

What about books that have questions in the back for discussion?

Some of my books have them, not that they are my idea. I have tried to discourage my publishers from including them, mainly because book groups seem to universally detest them , they find them condescending and never use them. So what’s the point?

If any one of your books was to be made into a film, which one would you like it to be.

Even as we speak  We Need to Talk About Kevin is being filmed, and I wish it the best but in all honesty, I believe that The Post-Birthday World would make a great film, a heart-wrenching film, I think it would be beautiful. Unfortunately that option has lapsed , so it is available – put the word out there!

The Book of Dead Philosophers

Philosophy is, in  my opinion, a fascinating and essential subject. However, it is often presented in a stuffy and far from lucid form.  This puts people off, and philosophy as an academic subject is perceived by many as a pretentious exercise in over-complication, while at the same time relegating centuries of lives and thoughts into some kind of -ism. Philosophy deals with issues relevant to every living person, and should then, it seems, be accessible to all. Luckily there have been plenty of irreverent philosophers, from the ‘first’ –  Socrates, with his ‘I’d rather drink hemlock and kill myself than pay respect to your idiocy’ to the more recent, such as the ‘randy and handsome’ Camus and his brilliant essays on ‘philosophical suicide’. Such characters have rejected the stodginess and pedantry of the philosophical norm, and often brought about considerable change in Western ideas as part of the process.

Given that irreverence is ‘in’ (or so you would assume at least from reading this blog), it seems timely to revisit the history of philosophy with this in mind.

This is exactly what Simon Critchley has done, with a twinkle in his eye, with his latest  The Book of Dead Philosophers. Critchley runs through 190 or so famous and infamous philosophers, discussing their deaths and what philosophical relevance that may have.  For each philosopher he discusses briefly how they died and how that might relate to the philosophy that they extolled. Some entries are just a line, some a paragraph, some a small essay. This format is very readable and allows you to dip in and dip out, something that is normally impossible when reading philosophy.

While this could be a morbid exercise, the writing is very witty, and there are some brilliantly ironic entries and plenty of pythagorean bean humour.  Pythagoras and his followers famously denounced beans, and while being pursued by malicious soldiers, Pythagoras was caught and killed because he refused to run across a field of growing beans. A noble death indeed. Other such ridiculous examples are the death of Francis Bacon in London in the winter of 1626, from a cold reportedly contracted while out in the street trying to stuff a live chicken with snow to investigate the possibilities of refrigeration.

This work is very readable, but it is also informative. Its genius being that while ostensibly poking fun at the lives of very serious philosophers, it also uncovers the very unserious lives of others, all the while illuminating their humanity and never shying away from the ‘big’ questions these thinkers were prepared to offer answers to. By studying the deaths of these philosophers Critchley hopes to uncover some answers about life, how we might live it well and learn to accept the shadow of death that always hangs above us. A worthy read for the philosophically inclined, and in a non-academic and very approachable format.

Morbid Thoughts

1001 books
1001 books

What’s with all these books obsessed with death and cramming everything in before the grim reaper appears? As my better half observed recently, ‘you’ll be seventy in twenty years’. This has been preying on my mind, but there is no shortage of books that suggest what I can do with my few remaining years, before I die.

Maybe I could go fishing or surfing; play golf or listen to some classical or pop music. I could take in some fine art, appreciate some gardens or catch up on one’s reading.

The only problem is: is there enough time? And that’s before we’ve even tackled the unforgettable places to go to BYD, the 1001 places to visit BYD or the world’s natural wonders before you snuff it and join the choir invisible.

Fortunately, we don’t appear to have bought the book that I recall having a title similar to ‘100 places to take the kids before you die’. That’s taking all this morbidity too far.  What next we ask? ‘100 Diseases to Endure Before you Die’?