Literacy Christchurch (formerly known as ARAS – Adult Reading Assistance Scheme) celebrates its 40th birthday today. ARAS began on 13 December 1977 as a pilot scheme initiated by the Canterbury WEA (Workers Educational Association), with 8 volunteer tutors and 8 students.
Robyn Chandler, manager of Literacy Christchurch, talked to Jan Orme, Senior Library Assistant, Outreach and Learning Team for the sixth issue of our magazine uncover – huraina.
Professionally, what does the library mean to you?
So many things – university, education, nurturing, empowerment, research, choice, access to knowledge – the library is a place of instruction and delight, and such a key feature of a free society. It’s a world of information and cultural richness rather than a set of walls. Libraries have provided both education and entertainment for me.
And personally – what’s your favourite part of the library?
Do I have to pick only one? I love the displays of artwork and artefacts, the children’s section and its sense of potential. I tend to focus on one area of a collection for a while – mountaineering, gardening, local history, music, art… recently the graphic novel collection (loved Northern Lights). But if I had to focus on just the one area because I had a time limit it would be the new books – there’s always something to find.
Would you please share some highlights of your own literacy journey?
I remember sitting outside the University library on a bleak winter’s day reading the 19th century novel Wuthering Heights, the words collapsing the distances of history, space, and culture. I was there, on that “bleak hill-top,” lost in the “atmospheric tumult.”
On a professional level, it would have to be becoming a volunteer literacy tutor and having the privilege of meeting people from all walks of life and sharing their literacy journey for a time.
What would you say to your learners who are new to using the library?
I would want them to know that they are in charge of their library experience and that there are people available to support them with their library choices and needs. I would advise them to not be intimidated and to be aware of the resources available to them and that library staff are more than happy to help. The library is there for everybody; the library belongs to us all.
We’d love to see more of your learners in our libraries, what would be your best advice to help us achieve that?
The most important thing new library users need to see is a friendly face and to feel welcomed, to see proof that the library is there for them and their community. Some of our learners have English as an additional language and it would be nice to see more welcome signs in other languages. I’m really pleased to see that families are going to be able to take part in the Summer Reading challenges this year, this kind of activity encourages novice library users to participate in what’s going on in the library. Doing things with whānau can feel more natural than doing things alone.
What would be the one book you would take to a desert island?
I’m going to cheat – my desert island will have WiFi and I will be accessing the library’s great and growing collection of eResources. Me, my device, and more media than I’ll ever be able to get through … a whole world at my fingertips.
Christchurch’s elite ultramarathoner Vajin Armstrong talks about his training, meditation, and of course, his favourite books.
Have you heard of ultra running? If a marathon just isn’t far enough, here is the new holy grail of running – the ultramarathon. The word ultra means “beyond” in Latin, and these extreme endurance races, commonly referred to as ultras, are certainly beyond what most people would consider physically possible. Perhaps that’s why Vajin Armstrong, one of New Zealand’s elite ultra runners, finds his success lies not only in intense physical training, but also in a strong spiritual practice.
Christchurch born and bred, Vajin has raced all around the world and has placed on the podium in numerous ultras in America, Australia, Europe and Asia. Among his most notable achievements are three consecutive wins of New Zealand’s premier mountain race, the Kepler Challenge in Fiordland. Normally a challenging 4-day hike, Vajin’s best time over the 60km course (which is not only pretty far, but also involves running over a mountain) is a mind-blowing 4 hours 55 minutes.
The 2017 Kepler Challenge is on this Saturday 2 December and once again Vajin will be lining up with the world’s top athletes.
Vajin, after three Kepler Challenge wins, what are your thoughts coming into the race this year? Is winning important to you?
For me the competition is not my primary motivation. My goal during training and racing is to enter the space where I’m completely immersed in the task at hand. At those times where you become totally one with the simple act of running, the rest of your life ceases to exist, there is no past, no future all that exists in that moment. For me this experience of being completely present, totally alive and free is more fulfilling than any outer accolades. The human in us can only do so much, but when we reach that point where we think we can go no further, this is when our inner strength comes to the fore to help us keep going. Ultra running is a great way to experience and explore this incredible frontier. In my life I always feel so happy when I can go beyond my own perceived limitations. Transcending our limitations in any field gives us such joy.
Describe a typical training week.
I regularly run between 160km and 200km per week, I enjoy the process and discipline of it. For me it’s enjoyable and fulfilling to have the opportunity to work hard every day towards my goals.
With such a high volume of training to fuel, do you follow a special diet?
I’ve been a vegetarian for my entire adult life and I have found that a plant-based diet is really conducive to both my running and my life in general. A lot of the top trail runners are vegetarian or vegan.
The highly successful vegan ultramarathoner Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run is a cross between a fascinating autobiography and a vegan recipe book.
What inspires you to keep training at a high level?
When I run I feel the most alive, the most free and the most connected to the world around me. And there’s the self-discovery – beyond the very extremes of fatigue and distress we can find a great calm and power that we never dreamed was there, sources of strength never discovered at all because we never dared to push on past the obstructions.
What are some things running ultras has taught you?
For me trail and ultra running is all about self-transcendence, freedom, simplicity and exploration. Our modern world is so obsessed with the search for comfort and ease that having this outlet, which gives me the chance to put myself in challenging situations and to explore and have adventures, is so balancing. Having the opportunity to spend a whole day out in nature for me is very meditative and fulfilling. You find you begin to value anew the simple pleasures of life, a beautiful sunset, drinking from a mountain stream, good company and natural foods.
How does your meditation practice relate to your training and racing?
For me the practice of meditation and the practice of running are completely interrelated. Through running I develop concentration, discipline and determination while from meditation I get peace, stillness and tranquility. It’s always important to have a balance between the outer aspect of our lives and taking the time to develop and connect with the deeper inner parts of our being. At a certain point the physical body gets exhausted and that’s where the mental and spiritual dimensions kick in – we’re finite, but we can connect to the infinite. I learnt meditation many years ago from the Indian teacher Sri Chinmoy. Sri Chinmoy spoke a lot about sports and meditation and inspired countless athletes. He talked about the cosmic or inner energy, and how when you can connect with this through meditation, your potential is boundless.
What keeps you going when things get tough?
While running, especially in long events, I try and use the skills I have developed from meditation to make my mind still and calm and to be present in the moment. Very often when we are attempting to do something really challenging it is our own mind that can become our worst enemy. Our doubts, worries and insecurities can all attempt to hold us back. Having the ability to quieten the mind and focus on the task at hand is an invaluable skill.
What are the coolest places you’ve ever run?
The Canary Islands, the Sahara Desert, the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, and the Himalayas in both India and Nepal.
Any books you’d like to recommend?
Some books I’ve been reading lately and enjoying are Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and anything by Malcolm Gladwell.
The bare walls of our busted city are a canvas for something beautiful. Since the earthquakes, a lot of us think: “Christchurch street art is ka rawe”. Here’s a mere sample of what is happening right now:
Superlot 9 is opening on 2 December at 122 Lichfield Street and is going to have street art bedecking giant spraycans.
Fiksate Gallery in New Brighton has an exhibition of street art, illustration and urban contemporary art on until 17 December.
YMCA Christchurch in association with PAINT (Pushing Art in New Zealand Trust) presents Street Prints Otautahi 2017. Large scale murals will be painted in the central city, New Brighton and Lyttelton, plus there’s a range of events and activities for all ages between 21 December and 29 December.
Street art can be ephemeral, as murals are painted over, blocked out, or the building canvas demolished. But there is a particular little leap of happiness in the heart when you spot something happening. It’s a buzz. Our street art is tied up with memories and possibilities, and with hope. I spoke to Lindsay Chan who since 2015 has been playing an important role documenting Ōtautahi’s street art and facilitating new artworks via the website Watch this space:
Why do you think Christchurch has become such a street art hub?
Christchurch always had talented muralists and graffiti artists, but it was the earthquakes that brought their talents to the forefront. The city became a blank canvas with empty buildings and buildings waiting to be torn down. George Shaw from Oi! YOU together with the Canterbury Museum and then the YMCA brought in internationally renowned artists to paint large-scale murals across the CBD. Combined with the amazing local talent and visiting international artists keen to make the most of the post earthquake landscape, Christchurch started making a name for itself in the international street art scene. Did you know it has its own chapter dedicated to Christchurch in Lonely Planet’s first ever street art dedicated guidebook, Street Art ?
How did Watch this Space get started?
When I moved to Christchurch a few years ago, I went on one of Frocks on Bikes free bike tours. That day they showed us around the different street art works. I was surprised to see all this amazing art work in the very city that I live in and bike through all the time. The bike leaders pointed out so many different art works that I had never noticed. I asked Connie, the leader from Frocks on Bikes, how she had decided the route, and she said it was actually quite a lot of work because none of the information was centralized. It was scattered across individual newspaper articles and maps were often incomplete and not kept up to date. Not to mention, Frocks on Bikes is a group of volunteers, so I thought it was a bit crazy that she ended up having to go through various newspaper articles and websites to decide a route and find out the details of each artist and work.
I work in geospatial information systems (GIS). We make maps and visualize data. We take number data and put them into an easy to understand format, usually into maps. I’m always looking for ways to learn new skills and thought this could be a great opportunity to put my skill set to use with something I’m really interested in – street art and create a resource that can be used now by the city and as a legacy item once the city is fully rebuilt.
What does your role involve day-to-day?
Well, my “real” job is working as a geospatial analyst at the Department of Conservation (DOC). I do Watch This Space stuff outside my regular work hours and have gotten others involved too because we think it’s something the city and the visitors to the city need. We are now a charitable trust and have five trustees who are a big help with sharing the day-to-day duties.
Day-to-day, we try to keep up to date with where the latest murals and graffiti are coming up in town and share that through our website and social media so other people can know about it too. We take photos, research the artists, chase down funding, and meet with all kinds of different people to try and convince them that the graffiti and murals in Christchurch are truly amazing and something that the city needs to make space for in “new” Christchurch.
Do you have any favourite artworks in town?
That’s a hard one Donna. I have many favourites. One of the things that draws me to graffiti and murals is the stories behind each of these. I like the paste up of Tony Fomison and the tags that cover it. This one is located on the corner of Manchester and High. The paste up was put up after the earthquakes as part of Christchurch Art Gallery’s Outer Spaces project, but they put it over a tag. Later that artist came back to mark his territory and tagged over the paste up. I think it’s a great dialogue between outdoor and indoor art and the different forms of art that exist in Christchurch.
My other favourite was a portrait of Ikarus by Wongi . It was on the corner of Manchester and Welles. I like how graffiti is something friends go out to do together. I think it’s even cooler that Wongi did a portrait of one of his good friends and the works around it give it a nice touch too. It shows that a lot of different artists had been out to that spot.
How can Christchurch people and visitors help grow Watch this space? What are the features of the website they can use?
We want Watch This Space to be a project for the people by the people. The website is set up so people can contribute their own street art images, so if you see something new come up, take a photo and send it in. If you notice a building getting torn down or an art work getting covered up, take a photo and send it in. If you’ve taken photos pre-earthquake, send it in. Watch This Space can only cover so much ground, so please, we’d love to add your images to the map. The best way for this project to be sustainable is if the community gets involved, and we’ve created some easy to use tools so you can.
How do you work with artists and building owners to activate walls with art?
We have steadily been building ties with the local artists as we add their works to the map and write about them in our blog. People around town are starting to come across our resource and contact us from time to time for help connecting with artists. We recently helped ChristchurchNZ in their search for wall space for the David Kidwell mural on the corner of Lichfield and High as well as helping Christchurch City Council find artists for the Enliven places street mural project.
Artists can fill out this expression of interest form on our website, and businesses or local organisations who want to commission a mural can fill out a form, where we’ll help to connect them with a local artist.
There’s a lot that happens before we actually see the mural on the wall, which many people don’t see or understand. That’s where we can step in and help make it easier on both parties.
I think one of the great strengths of Watch this Space is that you also list the artworks that are no longer viewable, whether they are on buildings that have been demolished, or sites that have been built up. Do you have a sense of the work having a role to play in our history?
I think it’s extremely important to follow street art as it gets decommissioned. Many people see the beauty of street art as being ephemeral. I agree that is an aspect that contributes to its beauty, but art isn’t just about beauty. Throughout history, art has been used as a form of expression and commentary on the current climate. Graffiti, murals, and street art are a record of what our city is, what it was, and what it could be.
Take for example Daek Williams’s mural that used to be on the corner of Colombo and Peterborough Street. He made that for the Rise festival, and the mural is based on his impression of the residents of the Red Zone and how they stayed and did not leave Christchurch.
Dcypher’s mural on the side of the Roxx climbing gym on Waltham Road is the artist’s interpretation of Christchurch’s urban landscape prior to the earthquakes. Following street art as it gets covered up and torn down is also preserving piece of history and the memories individuals attach to different works.
Do you use libraries?
I went to the library a lot as a kid. I read a lot growing up.
What are you reading/watching/listening to now?
I have to admit, I’ve been watching the Marvel series on Netflix. I used to love reading as a kid, but when I entered high school, there was so much required reading and analysis and essays about what we were reading, I haven’t been able to get back into it. I recently heard an interview by the author of Nevermoor on RadioNZ. It reminded me of the Harry Potter series, which I was a big fan of growing up. Nevermoor sounds pretty awesome. I might have to go check that out..
Watch this space …
From Friday 24 November, we’re starting to guide tours on Fridays and Saturdays for the rest of the summer. They will go from 11am to 12:30pm, at a cost of $25 per person. Proceeds from the tour will go back into Watch This Space to help cover developer fees, the interviews and editorials on our blog, and be put aside to commission a mural in the future. Find out more and book your tour.
Stacy Gregg’s latest pony book The Thunderbolt Pony is a children’s novel very close to home, both for Cantabrians and for the author. Set in the aftermath of an earthquake in the real life town of Parnassus, near Kaikoura, the story is about 12 year-old Evie and her determination to save her beloved Arabian pony Gus, her loyal border collie Jock and her aptly named cat Moxy.
Stacy Gregg portrays strong, independent, fearless girls in her books and here Evie bravely overcomes not only the forces of nature but her anxiety disorder, which she has been suffering since her dad became terminally ill. Evie’s OCD manifests itself in the belief that she if she doesn’t stick to set routines, it will cause bad things to happen, making her the ‘bringer of earthquakes.’ Evie must embark on both a physical and mental journey, in a race against time to get to a rescue boat.
Stacy Gregg has experienced the effects of anxiety disorder firsthand, with her own daughter developing OCD a couple of years ago, and she brings the specificity of what it can be like into the story. In fact, Stacy manages to intertwine quite a lot into this pacy yet reflective story. There’s also Greek mythology in here too with reference to Poseidon, who makes the perfect tie-in as not only the god of the sea but of earthquakes and horses as well.
You don’t have to be a horsey person for this story of adventure and animal friendship to appeal. Gregg’s style of historical fiction applied here will particularly resonate with many middle-school children in New Zealand and those around Canterbury, the Hurunui and Kaikoura will feel especially immersed in the familiar settings. Overriding everything, however, is Stacy’s signature quality storytelling.
Interview with Stacy Gregg
We interviewed Stacy on the release of her latest book – she talks about her research and writing process and about her experiences with anxiety disorder in her family.
Stacy, what types of research did you do for The Thunderbolt Pony?
As well as reading lots around my subjects, I’ve always travelled for my research. My books have taken me to Arabia and Spain, Italy and Russia and now for The Thunderbolt Pony, Kaikoura and the East Coast of the South Island. It was important to me to travel the route that my heroine will take, the 64-kilometre stretch between Parnassus and Kaikoura. I was hoping the earth might move while I was there, but it didn’t. I had to rely on second-hand accounts of what the earthquakes were like because I’ve only ever been in a minor tiny tremor once here in Auckland.
What did you find in your research of the earthquakes that surprised you?
That they are noisy! You don’t think about the sound an earthquake makes, you think about the feeling of the land moving underneath you. But everybody I spoke to talked first about the noise. The boom that comes beforehand and the sound like a train surging beneath you. Like the rumble of the thunder that comes before the lightning – it gave me the title for the book.
Stacy, did you have a real person in mind when you were writing the character of Evie, who has OCD?
Evie’s journey is based very much on my own daughter’s struggles with OCD. When I first had the idea for writing the book I asked Issie what she thought about having a character who suffers from OCD and she was really, really supportive of me writing about it. She felt like it was important to raise awareness of the condition so that kids who are suffering from anxiety disorders realise how common it is and that they aren’t alone. There’s been such an overall increase in anxiety disorders in pre-adolescents, but this is especially true in places like Canterbury and Kaikoura where the kids have been through an earthquake and the ongoing aftershocks. Statistics in a recent study in Christchurch have shown that four out of five kids in the region have some level of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). It’s a very real issue.
What did you find in your research about anxiety disorders like OCD that surprised you?
My daughter gets really cross people say stuff like “Oh I totally need to keep the kitchen clean – cos I’m so OCD!” Because that’s not OCD at all – that’s just liking things to be neat! I remember there was a time when the word “schizophrenic” was misused in the same way. Then the mental health community stepped up and reclaimed it and said “hey it’s not okay to talk about schizophrenia as if it means you have a split personality -it’s actually a real condition that people suffer from.” I think the same thing will happen now with OCD.
There are a lot of mistaken preconceptions about OCD being a ‘clean freak’ condition where you have to wash your hands or keep things perfectly tidy. Yes, it can manifest in that way, but it’s just as likely for you to have OCD and have a super-messy bedroom! For many OCD sufferers it’s about wanting to protect people – or animals – you love and make them safe by adhering to rituals and counting. It’s a bit like superstition on steroids. If you have OCD you are compelled to carry out your rituals and you get really anxious and upset if you can’t do them right as you really do believe you are risking harming everyone that you love. You’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. In The Thunderbolt Pony, Evie is fighting her OCD and trying to get a grip on her actual reality, but she’s got a lot to contend with.
How challenging was it to write about a condition in your family? Was this a helpful process for you, to write about it?
It was tough at times to open the wound and examine it – but it’s better than letting it fester I think. Issie and I are both the same like that, we confront stuff head on and she was very honest with me and trusted me to tell the story. OCD is a rough gig. It can totally dominate someone’s life in a very debilitating way. Issie did a lot of really hard work with her clinical psychologist and that work gave her the tools to overcome it. I’m really proud of how open and brave she was, and I’m really grateful to our psychologist Hilary, for the support he gave her. The character of Willard Fox is very much based on him and he gets a big thank you in the dedication.
What has been the response so far from readers of The Thunderbolt Pony?
I just toured in Australia around schools in Sydney and what amazed me was that the kids there all knew what OCD was and they were very open to talking about anxiety disorders and seemed to really naturally engage with it. I’m just about to begin the South Island tour now – kicking off in Kaikoura – and I admit I am anxious about talking to the kids who have actually experienced the real earthquake. It’s going to be special, going back to the place where the book is set, but it’s also daunting. I hope they like it.
One thing really engaging about your books is the historical fiction aspect, how you use real places, events and real experiences in many of your stories. Why do you choose to write this way?
I think it’s the ex-journalist in me – I love to do solid research and I like to have a true story as a base foundation for my fiction. The Princess and the Foal was the start of that for me – it is the real story of the childhood of Princess Haya of Jordan. Her mother died in a helicopter crash when the Princess was 3 and she became really emotionally withdrawn and shut down after her death. When the princess was 6 her father, King Hussein, gave her an orphan foal to raise and said. “This foal has no mother, just like you. It’s on your shoulders now to be in charge and care for this young life.” This was the turning point for Princess Haya and her whole life story, her incredible success as an Olympic show jumper and as a powerful world influencer, came from that moment. It was so special to me to tell her story and to be given access to the royal palaces and the stables. My love of telling a true story sprang from working on that book.
You often write your historically-based stories from two points of view but in The Thunderbolt Pony we have just Evie’s viewpoints, one during the rescue adventure and one reflecting on her journey later (both physical and mental journey). Is this your way of using your ‘dual narratives’ device in this story?
That is a really good question in terms of discussing structure and the devices an author uses. I have frequently used dual narratives in previous books – dovetailing two girls with perspectives that are historical and modern-day up against each other. For this story though, there is just one voice, it is Evie’s story and hers alone. However, I didn’t want to write it in a linear fashion – I felt like we needed to see her two journeys – the physical and the mental – intertwined. It gives the book a different pace and that’s why we make time leap back and forth. The skill for a writer I think, is to construct a tricky timeline and make it feel like it makes sense and is effortless so that the reader doesn’t notice!
You’ve said you like to “get rid of the parents in a story” – can you tell us more about that and why?
It’s not just me who likes to get the parents out of the way. Look at Harry Potter. Or Lemony Snicket. Parents are a problem because they like boring stuff like routines and being safe. They are all about healthy meals and bedtimes and they are also on hand to help you when things get rough. If there are no parents you can have big crazy adventures where you must be brave and do everything yourself and there’s no one to stick their oar in and say “hang on a minute this is madness let’s stop and have a proper dinner!” That is why you get rid of the parents – they are too sensible and they ruin your fun and crush the spirit out of the adventure.
You write about strong female characters who are fearless, independent, self-sufficient. Can you tell us more about that?
I’ve always written strong girls as my heroines. Horses make girls powerful. You can’t be a powderpuff. You need to be mentally and physically tough to handle them. And at the same time you need to stay vulnerable and soft, because it’s in those unguarded moments that you create a true bond with a horse. My daughter rides competitively and when we roll up at competitions I’m always impressed at these women turning up driving massive trucks and handling enormous powerful warmbloods. We just don’t think anything of it – we don’t expect men to come and help with any of it. It’s a very feminist sport.
How long did the writing process take for this book?
I write a book a year. I spend about three months researching, three months writing and then another three months with my editor, pushing the manuscript back and forth through various stages beating it into shape. Then the next three months are publicity and touring and preparing to do it all over again. I love every stage of the process, I’m very lucky to do the job that I do.
What’s next? What are you working on at the moment?
My next book is called The Fire Stallion and it’s set in Iceland. As usual, I have the whole thing plotted out already – but I’m not giving away any spoilers yet!
What have you recently enjoying reading and what’s on you ‘to-be-read’ pile?
I have just finished Neil Gaiman’s book on Norse Mythology (OK that’s a big clue for the subject matter of my next book). But I won’t be able to read anything for a while now. I am an all-or-nothing reader and I can’t read other authors when I am in writing mode as I’m a terrible mimic. I have to isolate myself for the next few months and then I will binge read when the new book is finally done. On the bedside table until then are Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, The Dry by Jane Harper, and My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent.
As the movie proves, it isn’t just books that inhabit Sheila’s world. It’s also wonder and passion for the natural world — plants, animals and rocks. This translates into writing and beautiful illustrations. The documentary shows so much — her love for the sea and sailing, honeymoon spent in the hut under Mt. Aoraki, the fun of learning Icelandic and swimming with seals, her close and dear friendship with Janet Frame in their formative days as young writers. Got the feeling? Who needs a TV and a car if you can enjoy a night camping under the stars and a bicycle tour from Picton to Bluff?
Sheila Natusch greatly contributed to the understanding of nature by writing and illustrating Animals of New Zealand, the first comprehensive reference guide on this subject. She carried on writing all her life, on nature and history. Sheila has her artistic talent (inherited from her mother and grandmother) to accompany her words with convincing yet soft illustrations. In 2007 she was awarded New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to writing and illustration.
Watching the movie, it is not hard to see what compelled producer Christine Dann and filmmaker Hugh MacDonald (Sheila’s cousin) to capture Sheila on film. With premieres rolling out in cinemas from Auckland all the way to Gore, they are both fully occupied these days, but Christine still found some time to reveal the backstory of this inspiring project.
When did the idea to make a documentary about Sheila become obvious and where did it come from?
Director Hugh Macdonald has known Sheila all his life and always wanted to make a film about her, as she is such a fascinating character, as well as a woman of great achievements. I knew about her achievements before Hugh introduced me to Sheila, and as soon as I met her knew she’d be a great film subject.
Sheila is such a cinematic character, her enthusiasm and love for life in all its forms is beaming from the screen. Her story and persona are perfect for a form of a film storytelling. What was your intention in making this documentary, besides portraying Sheila and telling her story (because it also is a film about nature, New Zealand, wonder, curiosity and passion)?
Hugh and I share Sheila’s love of nature and the wild places of New Zealand. We agree with her that they are a source of much joy and inspiration. In making a film about her we wanted to share some of that joy and inspiration via someone who embodies it.
You produced the documentary but also contributed as a researcher and writer. How long did your research take, what were the main resources you used?
The research for the film took about nine months, but that was spread over 18 months in time as it involved going to Dunedin twice, down the West Coast, and to Southland and Stewart Island. My written sources included Sheila’s letters to her parents in the 1940s, and to Professor Ramsey in the 1950s and 60s, plus all her published work, both books and articles. Of course I talked to Sheila a lot to check things out as needed.
Is there a funny story from behind the scenes, something that happened during filming that you could share with our readers?
There always seemed to be lots of surprises happening, mostly good ones – such as the completely unexpected delivery of a box of chilled mutton birds to Sheila’s place when we just happened to be there with the camera for other reasons – and that enabled us to shoot the scene in the Bach Cafe where Sheila takes them to her friend Maraea to cook up for them all.
The visit of the Ecuadorian navy sailing ship the Guayas to Wellington in January 2016 was another such good surprise, even though we had to scramble hard to get the filming organised
Sheila made nature and science accessible to New Zealanders in a user-friendly and encouraging way, especially with the Animals of New Zealand. However, she was to an extent criticized by scientists due to a lack of scientific language in her works. Why do you think that happened?
She was writing at a time when the scientific community (especially the Royal Society) was trying to raise the status of science as a profession of experts who communicated largely with each other, rather than the general public. Sheila has always believed that knowledge about nature needs to be shared as widely as possible, and that means writing in non-technical, jargon-free and also lyrical ways.
Sheila is extraordinarily talented in so many different ways: she is an amazing self-taught illustrator as well as a writer, she has a great passion, understanding and an eye for the natural world, she is a researcher and an “outdoor pioneer-ess”. And she managed – it seems like all throughout her life – to nurture and develop all those talents, which must have been quite hard in those days.
Sheila is not only very intelligent, she’s also very determined, so although she was certainly knocked back and excluded from some things she wanted to do, or ways she wanted to do them, she just kept on pushing until she found a way around the obstacle.
Which is your favourite motto or a thought from Sheila’s wise yet witty repertoire of thoughts?
Too hard to choose! But in the film you’ll hear her say several times that you have to ‘keep on keeping on’ when challenges arise, and that’s a good advice.
I was very delighted, when I realised that Sheila quotes Walt Whitman in her introduction to Animals of New Zealand (his poem The beasts, which talks about the animals). I wonder if she ever in your conversations revealed her fondness for any other authors and who were they?
She has a big library of books on ships and sailing, and likes novels and poems about the sea and life on it. She can remember a lot of songs and poems from her early years with a sea theme, such as John Masefield’s Cargoes. She’s pretty good on Shakespeare as well.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers about Sheila and your movie?
It has been very rewarding for Hugh and me to share our enjoyment of Sheila, and her enjoyment of life, through this film, and find that is (as we hoped) resonating deeply with other people.
Sheila’s story told through the camera lens is full of curiosity and wonder for nature and great outdoors that surround us. It proves that those who observe and see, will be rewarded greatly – with life-long beauty and content. Make sure you see it!
I am standing next to the old Government Building in Christchurch. It’s early morning and the air is crisp and smells of expectations. In front of me is the cathedral in ruins. But from where I stand, I can also see a new building coming up. The new central library, with its promise of healing …
I am waiting here to meet Fiona Farrell to talk about her new book, which has been launched last week. Decline and fall on Savage Street, a fiction sister to non-fiction The villa at the edge of the empire, is yet another joyful gift with sophisticated form, lovable characters, relevant issues and healing properties that should not be underestimated.
Congratulations Fiona, for another beautiful gift that you have given to the city of Christchurch and also to the wider community.
I was really impressed by the form of this book. It’s a novel but at the same time, each chapter works on its own like a short story and it stands on its own like a delicately crafted jewel. I was wondering where did the idea for the form come from?
From the city itself, from the fact that everything seemed to be falling into little bits. When I started writing The Villa at the edge of the empire, the fact one, that’s a twin to this one, I wrote that in small chunks. I thought of them as bricks or little pieces of timber, salvageable, and then you put them all together to make a shape, so it was like a salvage operation.
I also felt that it’s wasn’t just the physical destruction of the city, but what I was feeling as an older woman who has lived here for nearly 70 years, was the demolition of a social structure that sustained people, and its replacement with lots of individualist policies and theories that are affecting the way people live in this country. It felt like it wasn’t just a physical demolition, but a social and political one. So I wanted to put all these little bits together and try and reconstruct a sort of history out of all these bits and pieces. A bit like a Kiwi crib, when you knock all your bits together, I think that’s very New Zealand style.
The whole story is a great portrait of the 20th century. The history is often happening in the background, but the reader is constantly aware of it. I had a feeling that all the way through the story, the terrifying events in history were somehow distant, they were happening far away and to others. Only with the earthquake it becomes real and is happening to characters of the story. People are suddenly part of this terrible history.
Yes, it becomes very intimate and personal with the quake. One of the challenges in writing the book was to find a little link between an event (like World War Two), a personal intimate link with here and something that would leave its mark on a house, particularly this individual house in this imagined street.
Sometimes it would be because someone remembered the house. The man in World War Two, who is wounded, has a photograph of the corner of the house. Later on in the story, there’s a painting of him by a woman that he wanted to marry, who lives in a house. This painting has a shadow under a tree, which is a reference to him. So it would be a link like that, or someone might be directly involved in a major event, like WWII, or there might be a kind of echo of it. Like with Eric, the agent, who behaves like the McCarthy-ist spies in America, but does it in this little house.
Sometimes it’s a sort of an echo, and sometimes it’s a metaphor. So when the Berlin Wall falls down and all the barriers collapse in other parts of the world, it’s the kitchen wall that’s been taken down in the house, and two families are blended together. So sometimes it’s a metaphor, sometimes it’s an actual link.
Eric is one of the characters that I really didn’t grasp. He was the most mysterious figure in the whole story for me, but I did get a feeling that he might be a spy.
Yes, well, he’s an agent. He’s an agent of the government survey of the people who were suspected to be communists in the late 40s and 50s. There was this kind of anti-communist agitation here, as it was all over the world, in places like America and Britain. People were singled out if they were suspected of having communist sympathies. So he’s just an echo of that over here in Christchurch.
The other thing I was very impressed by was the form of each chapter, the way you form the beginning and the end. It seems very simple, but it’s extremely powerful because it gives you a feeling of a flow that’s beyond human control, that life is so much bigger and complex and stretches beyond the single events that are portrayed in the book.
I like leaving the beginning and the end of the chapter ragged, so you come in with a few dots in the middle of the sentence. Again it’s a part of that salvaging, it’s that the story is just a little piece that’s been salvaged and there’s a whole lot of other stories. So I’ve just got this one which has got torn edges and it doesn’t properly end either, it’s got a torn ending. So that story can continue out of sight.
I always think fiction is what you read, the story on the page, but then there are all the other stories that are implied within that book. That’s a sort of thing that’s been rather fashionable I suppose in the last 20 years or so, to make books out of minor characters for example or to say what would happen if something else had eventuated, to reframe the known story. That’s a sort of thing I’m working on as well, that idea that there’s a whole other narrative, a great big narrative, and you just choose this little bit. That’s the bit that you pick up from a ground, it’s just that little brick and you pick it up and you hold that one up. It’s kind of salvaging operation.
At the same time, that little brick tells the wider story as well, it’s so entwined in its context, which can have social, political, economic, environmental weight … so you can actually see a whole house in that little brick. I think that’s very hard to achieve and is at the same time the beauty of fiction.
Yes, that’s exactly right. In this particular fiction, it’s always a problem how you’re going to shape the material and tell a story. For me, it always has to start with structure. I always have to have a shape in my head. Other people might start with a character, or an event, or something like that, but for me, it’s a shape
I often find, when I’m talking about my books, I do this – an arch (Fiona draws an arch with her hand in the mid air) or a span. In this one, the shape is one hundred little pieces and once I have that in my head, once I have a shape clear, and the way I’m going to present it, everything falls into place. That dictates what I can tell, how long the book can be. It dictates how much you can actually pack into a short chapter, it gives you a very precise formula in which you can work.
It sounds a bit dry, but for me, it’s very reassuring, because it’s such a massive material and you could just tell a great sweeping saga that went straight through from A to B, but for me, it feels more comfortable. I feel at ease, writing this small precise pieces and it makes me very, very particular and very concentrated. It’s like writing a poem or a short piece of fiction. So I have to be economical, but I have to pack into that something about the character, I have to move the narrative forward, I have to put the reference to the house, there are particular things that I have to do within that tiny shape and it disciplines me.
I have noticed the voices of characters came through very well in each chapter. You can tell straight away which character is telling the story. I think you captured those voices really well.
I really enjoyed writing them all, I loved writing Poppy, she was my favourite. I liked all of them, even Eric in his funny, disturbing way.
I was really fascinated by the power of your imagination, I think it shines in the scope of various people who lived in the house and their stories. Where do you get the ideas from? There is such an abundance of them in this book.
The problem I have is too many ideas. The problem is limiting them. That’s really the problem I have, it’s the selecting.
Wow. It must be nice to have that problem, as a writer, I guess?
I don’t think it’s necessarily an advantage. It’s not an advantage to have loads of ideas because you still have to select and still have to discipline yourself, you have to restrain, what can happen, and make choices. It doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.
I guess that’s when your form helps.
It does, because it let me write lots of different little stories, which I enjoyed. And I also liked discovering history, things that I found by coming to the library and looking through the microfilm. I still like sitting in the library and finding all material that’s there.
If we return back to the characters, and I might be a bit biased here, but I got a feeling that women characters are really holding up the households in the house all the way through the book until the earthquake hits. That’s when female character Janey intuitively gives up and her husband Rob is trying to save the situation and is trying to hold it all together.
Yes, that’s true particularly for the first part, when Violet is there for a long long time. And I suppose Min and the hippy commune as well. I wanted to try to keep the balance, because history is often told from a male point of view and particularly in this country, or anywhere really. It can very often be a history of great male figures. I’m an old 70s feminist and we’ve been fighting that one for a very very long time. All my life really. It’s also that I do know how female characters work. I’m less secure when I’m writing male characters. I can understand the complexities of a female thinking. I wanted to try to keep the balance.
I think it is a good balance, especially with Rob, he balances it out. And Paul as well.
I loved Rob. He keeps on trying to make his pizza oven, I thought he was gorgeous.
It was very interesting to observe different timelines, which exist in the novel. One is the human-scale time. The other two are much slower and they belong to the natural world, have their own rhythm. Again, these two timelines, one of the river and the other of the earth, they create a different perspective of events. They give the perspective of human insignificance compared to the natural world, a reality that just passes by in its own slow rhythm.
Yes, and very magical and wonderful one. I find eels, the journey of those big female eels when they’re eighty, ninety, hundred years old, back up to spawn, amazing. How that’s imprinted in a thing that’s a size of a whitebait on arrival! I’m just in awe of the natural world, and I’ve become more so as I get older. It just seems more and more extraordinary. And valuable and a real corrective to human self-importance. We just have to do the best we can here, and live as well as we can, but make it possible for everything else to live as well. We really have been on a crazy path.
I think out of your characters Sybil is the one most connected to the natural world.
She is, though she never moves outside of the house and garden, she stays there all her life, so she’s the one who lives the most restricted life in some ways. I wanted to show that idea that you can have this tiny, little, precise, fixed environment, but it’s got everything in it. If you just want to look at it. She looks, she’s the one who sees things. Partly because she’s been damaged slightly by almost drowning, after falling off the raft. But she sees the world very clearly and understands the beauty of animals and plants. She never moves much beyond the gate, very rarely.
Though she lives very rich life, she’s mostly turned inwards. And outwards to the beauty around her. I really liked her.
I did too. Solid little lady in her little grubby old dungarees. She’s great, little witch lady.
But also very strong at the same time.
Yes, she’s very determined, very strong, sure about who she is and what she’s doing. Yes, I liked her.
There are also many metaphorical layers in your novel. A lot of metaphors are kept in the frame of each chapter, but many flow all the way through the book. The most compelling one for me was the image of the architect at the beginning of the narrative. I saw it as a metaphor for a writer, who’s crafting lives of characters. Throughout the book it gains even greater importance, it’s almost a god-like figure. I imagined you in this figure of an architect.
It’s the story of creation. The Biblical story is the creation of the chaos and there’s the world, the natural world, and the God creating everything. But that’s the story of creation as an over-reaching western myth, or for some people it’s belief. But it’s also what actually happens, this idea of random existence and the way we create structures out of random events, whether they’re the way we interpret something that’s happened and make narratives out of it, or, whether we decide we need a shelter and we assemble lots of random pieces together from all over the place and we make a shelter for ourselves.
Because we need shelter, we’re a naked little animal without a shelter. It’s a necessity for us as a creature. What I liked about the architect is partly that he adds a little tower. He’s doing something very practical and right at the end, just before he goes off for his lunch, he adds a little detail, which is just a silly little tower, little turret with a room in it. And because of that tower, because he added that to the house, certain kinds of people keep getting attracted to the building, because it’s got a kind of romantic playfulness. There’s sort of joy in it. And each of them brings their own imagery to the idea of the tower or the turret.
What interests me is that the house never really grows into a character. It stays in the centre of the novel, it works as a setting, becomes a home and a sanctuary for so many generations, until the end, when it gets demolished and I think that’s when it becomes the most alive. It explodes into life.
Yes, just like the eel, living its 100 years and then it explodes. I love that. It wasn’t something I planned, but I love it. Thank you. I’m glad that’s how it seems.
This book is a perfect read for someone who hasn’t experienced the Christchurch earthquake and post-earthquake situation but is intrigued in how it must have felt, how it must have been on a personal level. I think you captured the aftermath, all the emotions, frustrations and everyday struggle extremely well. Only art allows us to capture life in such ways.
Yes, exactly, I think so too. I think there’s a certain amount you gain from reading facts, of course there is. You can read books about places or events, which are factual and have enormous power. But to really find out, to get in the intimate part of it, how it affects things like, how you are in bed with someone, or how a child feels, you do it through fiction. Often children’s feelings about war or big national or international events are at a distance or very limited. That’s what fiction can do, it’s investigative and curious.
According to Dale Spender and his work The mothers of the novel, the novel developed as a female form.It developed at the same time as men were going off on voyages of exploration and scientific enquiry, coming to New Zealand, apart from anywhere else. But women were not able to do that, and so stuck at home, within those four walls, they started speculating and investigating through fiction. And that’s how the novel started, at least in the English language, I don’t know if it’s the same across Europe. It was disregarded as something trivial, frivolous, something that was not important. That’s a sort of thing that you have all the time in Jane Austen: reading novels is a waste of time, it’s not important. She’s writing out of that kind of environment, but there were hundreds and hundreds of novels being written.
It’s always been investigative, a kind of scientific experiment. You are working on an experimental level, you’re saying, if I put these things together, what might happen. It’s a really profound art form. I really love fiction. That’s why I wanted to try to write about this. It was difficult, but I did want to try to write about this big event.
It’s interesting what you refer to in your note at the end of the book – that the first novel about WWII, Elizabeth Bowen’s The heat of the day, was written three years after the war finished.
Yes, the first that I could find anyway, yes. I think the difficulty is to get the mind calm enough to be able to write about such big events. And it is a kind of individualist expression and you do need a degree of calm to be able to do it. Just to be able to put the words on the page really.
You also need enough distance, a perspective, which takes time, I guess.
Yes, and the Heat of the day is a very peculiar book. It’s very sexual, that’s the thing that’s the most dominant about it. It’s about these fleeting sexual encounters in London after the Blitz. That’s possibly the expression of her personality, but also part of that confusion. It’s very primal. I think it does require distance, it’s quite confused book. I was trying to avoid that, keeping it very precise and very clear.
If we touch on political issues in the book, first of all, I really like the nickname – Big Buffoon. It’s very clear who that refers to.
Well, Rob can’t stand him. It’s a character, it’s not me.
Rob is very very angry and frustrated. I think a lot of people will easily relate to him.
That’s the other thing you can do in fiction, you can express multiple points of view of any given event. It’s not just one monolithic variation of how things are.
I think a lot of political issues that are expressed through characters in this book are done so in a very powerful way. When I was reading Liz’s story, I got so angry.
Yes, about women, not being able to access abortion. Absolutely. That’s based to some extent on a book by Margaret Sparrow, who was a doctor in Wellington, who fought to have abortion made legal. She, like a lot of people, who fought that particular battle, assembled a book of oral histories called Abortion then and now, which includes first person accounts of what it was like to get an abortion in an illegal way, in someone’s front room or back room. And the fear of it and sordid things that happened as a result of that. These women were often very young, very vulnerable and desperate, so people were able to exploit that. Not just financially, but also in other ways.
What happens in the novel is actually what people have reported. Not just once, that’s been the experience of loads of women. This issues had been raised again in this election. The prime minister has already flagged that he’s opposed to abortion. It may be something that comes up in the next term, who knows.
I think a lot of issues that are present throughout the story are extremely relevant to what’s happening today: war, conscientious objection, immigration issues, gender inequality, environmental problems …
Possibly that’s because whenever you write a historical novel, you’re actually writing about now. You’re writing about the past, but you’re really writing about now. It doesn’t matter what it is. The novels about Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth I, they are to some extent reflections of our curiosity about celebrity. We are interested in clothes, in the machinations, just as we are in people like Trump.
The 20th century is a long period, but on some level, it’s also very short period and we are still engaged in it. We are still dealing with political things that were founded at the beginning of the 20th century, we’re still in those political parties, we’re still dealing with the same sorts of issues and they are not going to go away. It’s an ongoing flood. Like the river. And we are caught in it.
Thank you very much, Fiona. Would you like to share anything else about the book?
I hope that people find it a rich book. That’s what I really hope. That they’ll find things they’re interested in, or they share some of the feelings of the characters, that they can see them and that it’s vivid enough. I just hope it’s a rich book, with lots of pleasures for a reader. That’s what I’m hoping.
Shakespeare with tentacles, teenage sex, dead bodies galore, and nerf guns. Yup, you heard right. Hamlet: The Video Game (The Stage Show) is on now at The Court Theatre until June 24, and it is nothing like the Shakespeare you learnt at school.
Kathleen Burns is one of the cast, and we had a chance to ask her some questions about Hamlet, gaming, and this show.
Shakespeare! Guns! Gaming! Kicking ass! Hamlet: The Video Game (The Stage Show) at The Court Theatre sounds awesome! Thanks for chatting to us about it – it sounds like a really interesting mix of everything.
Before we start, let’s play ‘Two truths, one lie’ to get to know you. What are two interesting facts about yourself? And what about one thing that’s not true? We’ll see if we can guess which one’s the lie.*
1: I am really good at saying the alphabet backwards super fast.
2: When I was a girl, I had webbed fingers and had to get them surgically un-webbed.
3: I can’t click my fingers.
That first one’s an impressive skill – I hope you’ve found some way to get that into one of your shows! Now that’s out the way, on to the important stuff. Old Will Shakespeare. We had to study one of his plays each year at high school. I think I just about died of boredom watching every girl in my class act out Romeo’s death in a Yr 11 English assessment – do you know just how long a 16-year-old can drag out a death scene?! It was painful!
What about you? Did you have to suffer through the plays in English class or did you actually enjoy learning about the Bard?
At first it was totally daunting… like… what are all these people on about…? But, I had good English teachers who broke it down. It’s actually super easy… this person wants to kill that person, this person wants to sleep with that person… Also I often got asked to read it out loud, and you know… any chance to be centre of attention haha!
What about now? Have your thoughts on him changed, or do you still feel the same way?
The older I get, the more I either love or hate it. Like… “Yay! Titus Andronicus is so cool! Let’s put people in pies!” or “OH EM GEE Hamlet is so annoying, I wish he would just make up his mind…”
So … Hamlet: The Video Game (The Stage Show). That’s quite a mouthful! I looked it up on The Court’s website, and the description for the show was:
“Rebooting the story of Hamlet as a video game, this show blends Shakespeare with modern gaming culture to create a uniquely entertaining live experience. You’ve never seen the Bard this bad-ass!”
What does that actually mean? Most people would say video games and 17th century plays don’t really go together. What exactly are we going to see when we go see Hamlet: The Video Game?
Are you kidding me? Shakespeare and video games are pretty much the same thing. Bloodthirsty violence, revenge, high body count, teenage sex… all of the fun stuff. In this show you can expect to see an epic nerf gun battle, an abundance of gaming jokes, and hearts torn out of chests both literally and figuratively.
So it’s not going to be an old guy standing alone on a dark stage talking to a skull in Ye Olde English that we’re not going to understand? Phew!
Hamlet: The Video Game (The Stage Show) got shown for the first time back in 2015. It obviously did well to come back for a second go, so who is the show *actually* for? Usually people who go and see plays are not the people who’ll spend time playing computer games, so where did the decision to merge classical theatre and gaming come from? And who’s the target audience?
The idea came about from Simon Peacock, who started as a court jester here in Christchurch but now works in the video game industry in Canada. He directed the voices on one of my favourite games: Assassins Creed! This show is totally for gamers. I mean yeah, Shakespeare lovers are loving it too… but it so so packed full of jokes for gamers.
In video games, the gamer is in charge of choosing what their avatar is going to do next, or where they’re going to go, and that happens in this show too, right? So it’s kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet! That’s pretty cool.
Hahahaha no. It’s not a pick-a-path. Any experienced gamer will tell you that video games only offer the illusion of choice. At its heart, it’s the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But with video game tropes over top, like, at the start, the audience get to customize their Hamlet character. So far the mohawk has been really popular. But can you please come along and choose the beret for once??? It looks kick ass and the audience hasn’t chosen that one yet!
Got it. Always choose the beret.
Back in the day, girls and women weren’t allowed to act in old Will’s plays – apparently boys and men did a better job of playing the female characters than actual females did. That’s pretty dumb, I reckon, but I guess that was just the way society was back then. There’s a real live female actor in this show though, right? Playing a real live female character? Does she get to do really cool stuff, or is she stuck at home doing embroidery and cooking and looking after the kids? Of course, if a female wants to stay in and do sewing, she totally can – you be you, girl, and do what makes you happy! Anyways – what are the girls up to in Hamlet?
Well actually it’s funny you mention that because…. I am totally a girl. Yip. Boobs and everything. And I’m a gamer too. (Pause for shocked silence) The most domestic thing any of the female characters get up to in this is when Gertrude in her bed chamber brushing her tentacles. Yip, that’s right, her mighty tentacles that come out of her head. When she’s not doing that, she’s kicking ass.
Shakespeare and the tentacles. Not a sentence I thought I’d be writing, but there it goes.
Lots of schools use Hamlet as one of their English texts. How close is this play to the actual Hamlet play? If I go see it will I be able to write about it in my NCEA exams?
It would actually totally help you to understand the basic story of Hamlet… I wish I had something like this when I was in high school!
All right, so you must have thought about this – if Hamlet actually got released as a video game, who would you choose to voice the characters? And why?
I will voice them all. With a million different hilarious voices. And maybe some voice changing technology to make my voice sound deep and evil for Claudius.
Right … you did say you wanted to be centre of attention at school. I guess some things don’t change.
How many of the folks involved in this show are actually gamers? And what’s the fave game at the moment? Although I bet they’re all pretty busy at the moment making sure this is finished and ready for the audience.
All of us are either current gamers, or have been at some point in our lives. Personally, I’m looking forward to playing Andromeda because I’m a huge Mass Effect fan!
So… Hamlet: The Video Game (The Stage Show) is at The Court Theatre until June 24. It sounds like it’s going to be an amazing show to watch and should have something for everyone.
We’ve opened already! Only a week and a half left, so get in quick!
Thanks for chatting with us, Kathleen – have you got any last words for people out there trying to decide if this show’s for them?
It’s for you. If you come to the show, and then are like “maybe that wasn’t for me”, I will personally come into the foyer and admit to your face that I was wrong. (THIS HAS NEVER HAPPENED)
So there you have it, folks – Hamlet: The Video Game (The Stage Show) is for everyone. If you love Shakespeare but don’t game, or play video games but aren’t a fan of the Bard, or love Shakespeare AND gaming, go see it – it’s only $26, and it’s Shakespeare and tentacles. What’s not to love?!
* Oh, and in case you were wondering: the lie was … number 2.
Tami’s tour merchandise features a silhouette of her signature black beehive with the proclamation: “The higher the hair, the closer to God.” A couple of us gals working here at the library have been Tami fans for a while. She may just be our alter ego and I fondly remember seeing her play with local boys Marlon Williams and Delaney Davidson at the wee Wunderbar in Lyttelton a few years back.
Tami and her big hair certainly command a much bigger stage now, and the accolades and awards never seem to end for Tami. Possibly even more rewarding for her than a gong was recently getting to open the stage for her idol – blues, gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples.
While she’s got hair up to heaven, Tami now has two young boys to bring her back down to earth. Considering how busy she is with touring and family life, it is a wonder Tami has time to curl up with a good book, let alone curl her hair. But Tami loves libraries and literature (from classic reads to chick lit) and she graciously took the time to answer a few questions about her reading pleasures and sings the praises of a good book.
Tami, are there any special books you remember fondly from your childhood?
I was completely obsessed with Anne of Green Gablesfrom age 11. I read the whole series and then moved on to all of L.M. Montgomery’s books. I own her entire published works, as well as her more recently published journals, which are fascinating and actually quite dark in contrast to her novels. I have visited her various homes across Canada while touring with my family band when growing up. I still re-read her books regularly. The Emily series and The Blue Castle are my enduring favourites.
What role have libraries played in your life – either growing up and / or now?
I have always loved libraries and spending time curled up with a book. In my early 20s, when we came off the road and settled into the small town in Ontario where my Mom grew up, we didn’t have a computer yet and the local library is where I would excitedly go each day to check my emails and write to a certain Kiwi guy that I ended up marrying!
The library has played a huge role in my outings with my little ones since becoming a Mum myself – from the time they were babies, I took them to Wriggle & Rhyme and we go every few weeks to swap our books for new ones.
What books are your two young sons enjoying at the moment?
We’ve read to our boys since they were babies and they love books. We visit our local library regularly… a current library favourite is Super Stan, and we have a huge collection of the works of Dr Seuss, which are their go-to bedtime stories (and Mummy’s favourites to read to them!)
Do your kids love your songs (or are they over them) – do they have their own favourites?
They have their favourites, which they perform for us regularly on Saturday mornings. They set up their “stage” on the couch and haul out all their little toy instruments and play their repertoire of ABCs, Christmas songs, nursery rhymes and Mummy’s songs. Their favourites are Texas (written for Charlie), Loco Mama (written for Sam) and Holy Moses.
Tami would have a bookshelf the size of Texas if she could…
I tend to always have a musical biography on the go. I loved Shout, Sister, Shout, the biography of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and I’ll Take You There bio on The Staples Singers when I was researching for my new show, “Songs of Sinners”. What Happened, Miss Simone? about Nina Simone … and I recently picked up a copy of Roseanne Cash’s Composed memoirs when touring through Nashville. She writes so beautifully and I loved that it wasn’t a chronological account of her life, just colourful snapshots strung together with the language of a woman who has been writing songs her whole life.
Secret reading pleasures? What do you read when you’re waiting for your curls to set?
Every novel written by Marian Keyes! She’s my trashy, chick-lit go-to and makes me laugh out loud. Same with Janet Evanovich‘s Stephanie Plum series. I think I got up to #17 and had finally reached my fill, but, the very best of guilty pleasures.
What’s on your TBR (to-be-read) pile Tami?
I’ve been working through H is for Hawk for over a year now…having lost my father, it’s a hard one to read and gets too close to the bone at times that I have to put it down for a while, read something else and come back to it. It is so exquisitely written that I don’t mind that it gets read in short bursts, as it makes it last longer.
You travel a bit so I imagine you have to read ‘one the go’ – are you an eBooks/eReader convert or strictly old-school?
I have a love/hate relationship with my eReader. I love its convenience and the fact that it doesn’t take up half the weight allowance of my luggage like books used to when I was on tour!
However, part of the reading experience for me is the feel of the pages, I play with them the whole time I read (much to my parents’ and brother’s annoyance when growing up and now my husband’s!) seeing how far I have to go so I can prepare myself for the ending when it’s book full of characters I don’t want to part with, being able to lend a good book I want to share with a friend, see it on the shelf next to my other books after it’s been read (nothing better than a full bookshelf!) and my favourite smell in the world is that new book smell!
Tami, your tour is called Songs of Sinners but you seem so wholesome… can you tell us more about this juxtaposition?
Songs of Sinners is the story of how the gospel and blues music of the Southern States became Rock and Roll. Many artists grew up singing and learning to perform in the church, but then became “Sinners” when they “abandoned” their church congregations for a “life of sin”. From Ray Charles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mavis Staples … these artists then influenced future stars Elvis, Bob Dylan and Prince. This tells the story of how many of these more well-known artists wouldn’t exist without first hearing those early gospel and blues artists that may not be as well known.
At the end of touring this year Tami will be back in the studio to record songs for a new album.
Tami, with your album Dynamite! (2014) you came out “all guns a blazing” and Don’t Be Afraid (2015) was a tribute to your Dad. Has the next album you’re working on got any ‘feel’ or direction to it yet?What can you tell us about it?
I’m currently writing my new album and the emerging theme seems to be sass! A lower tolerance level for putting up with people’s opinions or judgments. A result of getting older, being a mother and losing my Dad all intersecting, I guess. I’ve also been hugely influenced by performing the Songs of Sinners show this past year and being challenged vocally and as a performer, so I think that is trickling into the songs I’m writing as well.
Get the look:Country Music Hair by Erin Duvall (2016)
This recently published book showcases the most notable bobs, beehives, bouffants, mullets, hats, wigs and curls from the 1960s to the present, alongside interviews with hairstylists and musicians and a full history of the ‘dos of the decade with the likes of locks belonging to Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn.
Adam is best known for his work being the driving force of the band The Eastern, who are widely regarded as the hardest working band in the lands. But did you know about his social conscience and the value he places on not only community but public libraries too?
I posed a series of questions to Adam in order for us all to get to know him a little better…
So Adam, what was the first album you ever bought?
“When I was ten. I hadn’t seen or heard from my Dad in two, nearly three years. He never paid child support and his name was dirty in my house. So he was like a ghost that I vaguely remembered.
One day I got home from school and on the doorstep was ZX spectrum 16kb computer and a jar full of money delivered courtesy of my erstwhile father. I was stoked, my mum full of sighs. We plugged the computer in and it worked, surprisingly. Come the weekend we hit New Brighton mall for a little shopping with the jar money, Mum got some new threads ready for a dance at the working mens club. I got a GI Joe Cobra Bore, “rip and roar, cobra bore, lots of trouble for GI JOEEEEEEE!” I still remember the advert.
But for me the holy relic of purchases on this day was a copy on tape of ‘Raising Hell” by Run-DMC. This changed my life, made me obsessed and hungry for music in a way I had never felt before, either for toys, or lollies or anything else my young brain had ever thought it wanted. That desperate desire continues unabated today. After 1000 failed jobs and nowhere/nothing starts there was no choice but to give my self up wholly to the blessing and curse of full time music and song slinging. I blame my dad, Reverend Run, Darryl McDaniels, Jam master Jay and New Brighton Mall.”
Which instruments do you play (on stage and not)?
On stage; guitar and harmonica and the nodules in my throat. On record I’ve played bass, mandolin, and keyboard. However not a single one of these, on stage or off would anyone (including most people in my band) say I was anything more than a hack and a chancer.
Is there an instrument that you don’t play but which you would love to be able to?
I would like to play the tin whistle. However whenever I pick up a tin whistle everyone around me suggests I don’t take it any further.
What was your first guitar and do you still have it?
I guess what I call my first guitar was an old F-series Yamaha, I bought for $100 at a junk shop on Manchester Street. I used to go in and play it and listen to the proprietor’s problems, health emotional and otherwise. This served me in good stead because the guitar was actually $120. It had a crack and the top lifted off from the sides, so I taped it together with yellow and green and white insulation tape.
I took that guitar all around the eastern and southern states of America whereupon even in its battered state it kept me feed and watered as it sung out across street corners from Philadelphia to New Orleans to Nashville and many smaller more lonesome corners between. After some time I guess it sensed that I had improved enough for something a little better. It’s job done, it pretty much committed guitar suicide whereupon all parts of it decided to more or less break at once; machine heads popped off, bridge pulled up, neck snapping. It was time to let it go.
It was called Rosilita and the last I saw of her she was in a wardrobe in the town of Conshocken, Pennsylvania waiting for either the dump or the next pair of desperate hands crazy enough to take her out into the world.
From now until his library performances in May, Adam will be reaching into the depth of our digital resources, he’ll be searching and exploring our physical resources, and most of all he’ll be connecting with the people of Christchurch by hearing their stories and discussing their lives/loves/losses. He will use much of what he discovers to inspire new works, songs and music, and during May, Adam will be available for a series of “Live with the Library” concerts, during which he will tell his stories of us, the people of Christchurch.
And here are the dates and times for Adam’s performances;
Ian, what inspired you to create this book when there are a few books celebrating Dunedin music already?
I didn’t feel there was a book that celebrated the Dunedin Sound adequately. Certainly, Matthew Bannister’s Positively George Street told the story from his personal Sneaky Feelings’ perspective, but you wouldn’t term it a celebration. And yes there are chapters in other books about the Dunedin Sound/Flying Nun scenes amid wider critiques of New Zealand popular music. There are also websites and many magazine articles over the years that are available online.
But in my view the Dunedin Sound deserved its own standalone book. And I also wanted to be able to point out that the Dunedin Sound and Flying Nun are not interchangeable terms though they are often used in this way. There were Dunedin Sound acts never signed to Flying Nun, and also a lot of Flying Nun acts that were not from Dunedin. I wanted to put Dunedin back at the forefront of the Dunedin Sound, which is why the book features only Dunedin acts.
What do you feel this book is adding to the archive of Dunedin music history?
As witnessed by the recent formation of the Flying Nun Foundation – with preservation a part of its goal, as I understand it – I think many people are starting to realise that the heyday of this scene was now more than three decades ago and time is precious. Peter Gutteridge has recently passed away, and the main protagonists will not be around forever – that’s the cold reality.
With the book being so wonderfully pictorial, I very much had the sense as I was collecting photographs and ephemera from here there and everywhere that this historical flotsam and jetsam is equally not going to last forever. Preserving it in a book like this – I’ve felt as much a historian, archaeologist and curator as an author. Simply, like the excellent job the the Hocken Library (in Dunedin) does, I hope this book with become part of the archive of Dunedin’s music history and ensure such ‘stuff’ is not lost forever.
Tell us about some interesting things you discovered in the process of creating the book? Hidden gems unearthed?
I knew it before I started on the project, but through talking to so many musicians, fans, and others involved in the scene in some way or another, it brought home to me once again how contentious the term ‘Dunedin Sound’ is. Even within the camp. That was interesting.
I was also reminded, when talking to others from the era who weren’t involved in ‘the scene’ – mostly musicians of other ilks – of the resentment that still exists regarding the media attention and resultant opportunities that the primary proponents received. It is still seen as something of a ‘club’ by many, and not always in a good way.
In terms of hidden gems unearthed, there are so many images that have never been seen before, and finding these – from old suitcases, basements, tops of wardrobes – stuff that hasn’t been seen the light of day for 30 plus years – was the biggest thrill. Forced to name a couple, I’ll mention the wonderful early photos of The Enemy taken by Ian Bilson and Josie Haines. Discovering these really got my heart racing.
Another discovery was just how close the music and the artwork/design aspects of the Dunedin Sound was. Again, I’d expected it, but not to the extent I found. With so much of the artwork and design done by the musos themselves, or by close friends and family, there’s a synergy between the two that you could never have got from faceless, uninvolved designers trying to portray the music while working in an office behind chrome and glass at some mega record company located in another city.
What have you enjoyed most about putting this book together and what were the challenges?
I enjoyed the feeling of preserving history, and meeting so many awesome people. Key collaborators on the book’s content included Graeme Downes, Alan Haig, Robert Scott, Stephen Kilroy, Roy Colbert, Sarah Williamson (research assistant). But really, everyone was wonderfully supportive of the project.
The biggest challenge was finding the origins of hundreds of photos. Many great pics were supplied to me by people who had them in their possession but had no idea who took them in the first place or how they came by them. More often than not, once I’d tracked them down, the musicians in the photos didn’t know who took them either, being so long ago. So, being a cold-case detective was extremely challenging. I still have dozens of fantastic pics in my ‘photographer unknown’ folder on my laptop that didn’t make it into the book for that reason.
Sure. He’s a glittering 1970s-esque glam rocker based upon Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona. He was my confidence-resurrecting imaginary escapist fantasy figure during my very troubled teens (during the 1970s) but was laid to rest when I left my teens behind. When I started teaching at the university post 2000 I wanted to show my students an example of a performance persona in order to help them learn to combat nerves and stage-fright etc; ways to suppress self-doubt and become 10ft tall and bullet-proof on stage. So rather than just talking about it, I brought Dr Glam out of the crypt and began performing.
I had an absolute blast, and it got the message across as my students saw their quietly spoken genial lecturer become a posing, pouting, glittery monster in 8 inch platforms, makeup and spandex, ha ha. (Did I mention the fun aspect???) But, by its very nature, glam rock(ers) shouldn’t go on for too long, and so I killed him off in 2014 at a dramatic Death-of-Dr-Glam gig. Nite nite and thanks. But I pulled him out of the grave one more time for this year’s David Bowie tribute show at Sammy’s. To all intents and purposes, though, Dr Glam is dead. I have since reinvented myself in the guise of his anagrammatic cousin, Mr Glad, and with my band, The Skeleton Family, we do twisted cabaret type gigs now and then.
Thanks Ian… Can you recommend some music-related books and DVDs that you really enjoy?
David Bowie: Five Years documentary. The best Bowie doco yet made.
Ian Chapman is a musician, author and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Music, Theatre and Performing Arts at the The University of Otago. A musicologist, he is working on his seventh book at the moment titled Experiencing Alice Cooper: A Listener’s Companion (Rowman & Littlefield 2017), which pays album-by-album tribute to another of his rock-theatre heroes.
Several others have been working on related books including one by Graeme Downes. Alan Holt is writing a book about the history of Flying Nun Records; Graeme Jefferies memoir Time Flowing Backwards is due out April 2017 and Needles & Plastic: A Flying Nun Discography 1981-1988 (2016) by Matthew Goody and Sean Elliot is out now.