Mortification: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

There are few things I enjoy as much as a true tale of shame and embarrassment told by a gifted spinner of yarns. Even better if the story in question doesn’t have me as its protagonist, though this isn’t compulsory. In fact, many’s the time I’ve found myself in some ridiculous predicament only to think “ah well, at least this’ll make a good story”.

Such was the basis, I suspect, of Robin Robertson‘s 2003 anthology Mortification: Writers’ Stories of their Public Shame, a book that grew out of his work in publishing that required him to travel the country talking with writers. He discovered both a rich vein of mortifying stories, and certain one-upmanship in storytelling (I have certainly experienced this myself, and the phrase “you think that’s bad…” is usually in the mix).

In this WORD Christchurch Festival session Robertson revived Mortification in a live format. It’s one thing writing an embarrassing anecdote down for publication – is it better or worse to have to read it in front of an audience? It’s hard to know if the writers involved are Robertson’s victims, or simply masochists but they all acquitted themselves with dignity… or at least as much as could reasonably be mustered. Which in the case of Jarrod Gilbert (whom we’ll get to later) wasn’t much.

Jarrod Gilbert, Megan Dunn, Steve Braunias, Paula Morris, and Robin Robertson, with Rachael King, Mortification
Jarrod Gilbert, Megan Dunn, Steve Braunias, Paula Morris, and Robin Robertson being introduced by Rachael King, Mortification, WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Saturday 1 September August 2018. File reference: 2018-09-01-IMG_1570

The session kicked off with a pre-recorded yarn from Irvine Welsh who, due to a family bereavement, was unable to attend in person. While I’m sure it would have been even more entertaining to hear Welsh tell his appalling tale of gastric misadventure and horrifying toilet facilities in person, I didn’t feel let down by his absence at all. Talking down the barrel of a cellphone camera, Welsh was devastatingly matter of fact in describing his attempts to “get away” with his unexpected befoulment, believing that he had done so… only to have his shame revealed by the unfortunate arrival of a group of pub-crawling Glaswegians. Welsh admitted that he is no stranger to public shame or the subsequent “crumbling down effect when your face collapses”, saying:

I’ve become really inured to the kind of embarrassment that really f***s up other people.

Apparently if you’re mortified often enough it sort of stops bothering you.

Paula Morris, respected writer and mainstay of the New Zealand literary scene, might beg to differ. She offered up, not a single, horrifying tale, but a thousand small humiliations instead, ranging from critical underwear failure at an operatic recital to childhood trauma via angry goat. Shorts that inexplicably opened during a speech. The shame of being at a signing table where noone wants your signature. Repeatedly being mistaken for poet Paula Green. And most significantly, her failed attempt at guiding a blind woman and her dog between London tube stations. It was a hard act to follow Welsh, but Morris can hold her head up high… in shame.

Steve Braunias told a clever and complex tale set during a period of unemployment, when his lodgings were less than salubrious. Braunias is a great storyteller – you don’t quite see the punchline coming, even as the clues of it are laid out carefully as he goes along, the slightly dopey loser persona he adopts adding to the comedic effect. The audience were in stitches. And yet… to me it felt very much like carefully crafted humorous story… that didn’t really happen. Which is fine as far as humorous stories go, but there’s something about the vulnerability of a true story, told by the person it happened to that is far more affecting. Being clever isn’t the point. Being shamefacedly honest is. Call me cynical, if you will, but I struggle to believe that Steve Braunias did, in fact, give Helen Clark fleas at a classical guitar concert.

On the other hand, I didn’t have any trouble believing that Megan Dunn (author of Tinderbox) attended a mermaid class in Florida, nor that she was not particularly gifted in the art of mermaiding. Synchronised swimmers aside, who would be? One of the reasons I believe this story is that Megan Dunn is currently writing a nonfiction book about mermaids (the pretend adult woman kind, not the mythical creature kind – no, I didn’t know there were different kinds either) and because if you’re going to invent a story that involves shimmying into a lycra mermaid “tail” it’s not going to be orange. Still, I felt like the actual mortification levels in this story were comparatively low because “failing to be sufficiently mermaidy” just isn’t that embarrassing. Fascinating, yes. A topic you’d rather didn’t come up round the Christmas dinner table? Not so much.

Finally, Dr. Jarrod Gilbert, award-winning author, University of Canterbury lecturer and, according to Braunias, “the thinking man’s drinking man” shared an inspiring* tale of bloody-minded determination vs good sense, reason and dignity (but who needs them anyway?). As is often the case with tales of humiliation it began with guys egging each other on – a friend simply said that Gilbert couldn’t run a marathon in 3.5 hours. So rather than let his friend be right about something, Gilbert endeavoured to do just that. What resulted was hallucinatory levels of physical and mental pain, and a impromptu bowel movement – Gilbert walking to the centre of the stage and adopting a crouching posture so as to paint a more vivid image in our minds (that wasn’t really necessary). This took place on the Sumner Causeway, or as Gilbert described it, “possibly the most exposed piece of geography on Earth”.

But there’s a happy ending! Gilbert achieved his marathon goal (thereby disproving his friend’s assertion) with less than 2 minutes to spare… admitting “it’s very difficult for me to describe just how little satisfaction that gave me”. It’s almost as if a person shouldn’t undertake a massively time-consuming and difficult task just to prove a point wasn’t in great need of being made.

Though saying that, it’s probably not in the spirit of the evening to try and extract a moral from any of these stories. Then again, “beware inopportune Glaswegians” does have a certain ring to it.

*Nope.

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True Crime – WORD Christchurch

Betrayal is in the journalist toolkit. You’ve got your notebook, you’ve got your recorder and you’ve got your sense of betrayal. — Steve Braunias

Given that crime fiction is one of the more well-thumbed genres in the library, I’m not surprised that true crime is equally popular.   Whether it’s because we’re attracted to extreme circumstances, because we’re appalled by violence inflicted on the innocent, or because of our voyeuristic tendencies — all theories floated by at the True Crime session — the only sure thing is that the trials of Teina Pora, Mark Lundy and David Bain were all avidly followed and judged by many.

Steve Braunias. Image supplied
Steve Braunias. Image supplied

Is the role of media in true crime positive or negative?

Steve Braunias asserted that crime is now under-reported, with many potentially high-profile trials going unnoticed due to a lack of journalists dedicated to the subject. Media can be helpful in uncovering critical evidence, specifically in identifying Teina Pora’s foetal-alcohol disorder in the Pora trials, according to Tim McKinnel. Both mentioned the disconnect between what is actually happening in the courtroom compared with what is reported the next day. People can also form completely different opinions based on the same evidence (e.g. did David or Robin Bain do it?). (Post your theories in the comments.)

Tim McKinnel. Image supplied
Tim McKinnel. Image supplied

Do you have faith in the jury and police system?

McKinnel voted yes to the jury, as it is more democratic than any alternative, but found the police variable. He prefers to make judgements based on individual officers rather than judge the police force as a profession.

Braunias agreed less enthusiastically, mentioning a number of trials where he considered the jury’s verdict led by spite, ignorance and/or hysteria.

Jarrod GIlbert WORDphoto
Jarrod GIlbert. Image supplied.

Other highlights:

  • Jarrod Gilbert reading from Scene of the Crime, in which Braunias makes a sometimes boring and lengthy murder trial vivid and interesting. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the Jailhouse Snitch, an almost stereotypical character who seems to have popped up on more than one occasion.
  • Braunias describing the faces of various professions. McKinnel has a cop face — guarded, concealed hurt; Gilbert sports an academic face; and Braunias himself, of course, a journalist’s: shrewd, rat-like and optimistic.
  • Braunias’s impressions of David Lundy. Not very likeable as a human being, not a good man, guilty regardless of whether or not he committed the murders. I have no opinion on his culpability or otherwise, but it did remind me of a blog post I re-read recently by author Shannon Hale, on the myth of the innocent victim. It’s uncomfortable to think that bad men can be innocent of the crime they’ve been accused of, just as we will rack our brains for reasons why violent crime might happen to an otherwise upstanding young woman, because we can’t possibly just blame the perpetrator and leave it at that. (But I digress.)

The session ended on a relatively positive note, with Gilbert mentioning the decrease in crime in New Zealand despite impressions to the contrary. Hopefully soon the most violent crime in the country will be limited to Paul Cleave‘s latest novel.

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Read In Dark Places The Confessions of Teina Pora and An Ex-cop’s Fight for Justice which features Tim McKinnel.

WORD Christchurch

Quick questions with Jarrod Gilbert – WORD Christchurch

We are asking quick questions of writers and thinkers coming to the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival on from 24 to 28 August.

Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist, Canterbury University lecturer, firefighter, New Zealand Herald columnist, and the author of Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand.

Jarrod Gilbert. Image supplied.
Jarrod Gilbert. Image supplied.

What do you like about living in Christchurch?

I live in Sumner, which gives every indication of being the best suburb in the world, It has a terrific beach, is surrounded by hills, and has a cool village feel.

What do you think about libraries?

Libraries are fundamental to democracy and ideally are hubs for communities. Changes to make them less stiff and more welcoming are awesome.

What would be your “desert island book”?

CoverTo a God Unknown by John Steinbeck. I can read it over and over and love it each time.

Share a surprising fact about yourself.

I eat the same meal every day.

Jarrod Gilbert appears in:
True Crime, Fri 26 Aug, 3.30pm
The Great NZ Crime Debate, Sat 27 Aug, 7.30pm

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