Passageways with Ann Thwaite and Joanna Woods chaired by Hamish Keith

My goodness that Hamish Keith gets about! He seems to be a constant on the New Zealand literary festival circuit and I think I know why, famous though he is for courting controversy, today with wonderful wit and charm he facilitated an interesting and generous conversation between biographers Anne Thwaite and Joanna Woods.

Hamish started the ball rolling by sharing the idea of the travelling gene; that everyone however long they’ve been in New Zealand has come from somewhere else. He also mooted the idea that early migrants to New Zealand rather than flying the flag for Great Britain were keen to establish an identity for their new home as something separate and other. He added that by the 1930’s and 40’s England had become re-established as home, reinforced through the education system and government, and that many New Zealanders  had a “fantasy past and uncertain present”. This fantasy past being created both Joanna Woods and Hamish Keith felt by nationalist writers of the period like Curnow and Fairburn, men with a vested interest in bashing the cultural achievements of the past.

Joanna Woods, author of Facing the music a biography of Charles Baeyertz, spoke compellingly about New Zealand’s vibrant cultural and literary scene during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. She cited a galaxy of international stars that performed in New Zealand and a host of homegrown talent that enlivened the lives of early New Zealanders. Baeyertz founded The Triad a cultural magazine which stayed in print for over 50 years and provided her with a rich source of information about New Zealand’s early cultural creations.

Ann Thwaite winner of the Whitbread Prize for Best Biography in 1990 shared her recently published family history Passageways.  She said it took her 40 years after his death before she could face opening the suitcases containing her Father’s papers and acknowledged that delving into the past was not always a joyful process and that “a photograph could be too sad to frame”. She talked about the joy of getting to know her parents as young people through their letters and diaries and read a charming passage from her Mother’s notebook detailing the appropraite behaviours that a young lady should model.

While the authors themselves seemed to find some difficulty in aligning their particular publications with the programme’s uniting theme of migration this was nonetheless an interesting session tackling in somewhat plummy tones issues of identity and culture.