Another country? Mainlanders discussing ourselves – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

I am bordering on late when I arrive at a packed out Upper NZI Room at the Aotea Centre for a session that, as a South Islander, I feel duty-bound to attend.

I’m pointed in the direction of of a clutch of empty seats near the back by one of the friendly festival ushers/helpers.

This session dares to ask – is the South Island, home to 23% of New Zealanders, another country? Is there something distinctive and different about hailing from the Mainland?

Joe Bennett, Fiona Farrell and Brian Turner
Joe Bennett, Fiona Farrell and Brian Turner (Image supplied)

Ready to answer these, and similarly not-that-serious questions are Christchurch writer Fiona Farrell, Otagoan, poet, and former sportsman Brian Turner, and transplanted Banks Peninsula raconteur, dog enthusiast and columnist Joe Bennett.

Radio New Zealand presenter (and non-Mainlander) Jesse Mulligan is in charge of wrangling this trio and extracting what wisdom he could on the topic of Te Waipounamu.

As a dyed in the wool Cantabrian myself the notion that the South Island might be considered sufficiently “different” and “special” from the rest of New Zealand to warrant it’s own hour of discussion was in itself a little off-putting. We’re the normal ones by which the rest of the country may be judged, thanks – I said to myself in a way that somewhat alarmingly reinforced the stereotype, and caused me to peer out from behind my metaphorical eyepatch. But I am not alone. When Mulligan asks who in the crowd was a Mainlander, a sea of arms waved in unison. No red and black stripey scarves were seen, nor are any couches set alight, but early days…

Yes, it seems that this corner of the Aotea Centre was packed to the gunwales with South Islanders. Here we had all converged…to hear us discuss ourselves. But perhaps if you’re a Mainlander who lives in Auckland, the chances to gather like this are rare? Kia kaha, my southern brothers and sisters, kia kaha.

Each representative of The Other Big Island is asked to read something that speaks to their identity as a South Islander.

Cover of The villa at the edge of the empireFarrell chooses a poignant passage from her book The Villa at the Edge of the Empire about solastalgia, the feeling of distress caused by the loss of a familiar landscape or environment. My one Cantabrian eye moistens noticeably.

Turner chooses to read several things by different authors including Margaret Atwood and Ronald Wright. I can’t remember the exact details but the theme seems to be that of the rural landscape being irretrieveably altered and damaged in the name of “progress”. What definitely sticks with me was how he describes himself as “a cussett sort of a coot”, because who, outside of a Larry McMurtry novel, talks that way? Splendid.

Bennett is rather less lyrical in his description of Turner who claims to sometimes call “my pet rock”. Certainly the difference between the two men is stark – Bennett all rambunctious energy, Turner barely moving and thoughtful. Mulligan, to his credit, manages almost to reign Bennett in at times, which is generally the best you can hope for, in my experience.

Bennett’s reading is of a very brief passage from a Owen Marshall short story “Cabernet Sauvignon with my brother”, which he chooses for a very specific description of dryness that he feels really perfectly captures that place.

I love the accumulated heat of the Canterbury autumn. When you rest on the ground you can feel the sustained warmth coming up into your body, and there are pools of dust like talcum powder along the roads. It’s not the mock tropicality of the Far North, but the real New Zealand summer. It dries the flat of your tongue if you dare to breathe through your mouth. After spending the vacation working on the coast, I was happy to be back in Canterbury.

Mulligan then asks a questioned designed to provoke, “why don’t you move to Auckland?”

Cover of Into the wider world: A back country miscellanyThe answers were vary in the degree to which they take the question seriously. Turner, with some earnestness observes that he needs wide open spaces and “the sounds of silence that aren’t silence”.

Farrell quips that she “probably couldn’t afford it” (A ha! An Auckland property market joke – they’re easy… but they’re still funny), and Bennett says it has never crossed his mind and points out how wrongheaded, presumptuous and arrogant the question is in the first place.

Discussion moves on to the portrayal of the South Island in the media and Bennett claims that the northern-driven media are often patronising and fall back on the trope of the South Island as “a visitable theme park of prejudice”. Cripes.

Farrell, recalls with dismay how, after reviewing the covers of a weekly publication that may also be a sponsor of the festival so shall not be named, *cough* The Listener *cough*, for the year 2013, found that 25 were about food, and Christchurch didn’t feature once. You can almost but not quite, hear the “tsking” from the audience.

Farrell also paints an interesting picture when discussion of a South Island personality comes up when she says that the myth of two old codgers meandering down a country road discussing cheese really is a myth – they’ve likely sold their farms to foreign interests and are incredibly wealthy, meanwhile the majority of the rivers have been left unswimmable. And yet, we should fight to try and keep some part of this myth of wide open spaces, and bucolic beauty alive and real.

In the end, did we learn anything about what it is to be a South Islander from this session? Maybe the northerners in attendance did? It was certainly entertaining enough to hear the conversation, though I couldn’t help thinking, since all the panelists were of a different generation from me, that what being a Mainlander means to them, might be quite different to what it means to a part-Māori Gen Xer from Linwood. But maybe that’s a different discussion again?

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“You tell lies to get close to the truth” – Joe Bennett

‘Twas a damp and misty Christchurch evening, supposedly Spring but feeling more like Winter, when a gathering of Christchurch people came to a WORD Christchurch event to hear celebrated columnist and author Joe Bennett talk about his new book – King Rich.

Despite nearly giving up partway through, Joe was persuaded by his publisher to continue the story that had begun  – where else ? – at the pub.He’d written a column about the man living in the Hotel Grand Chancellor Hotel, since demolished, and the nub of the story had stayed lurking in the back of his mind. Was it an urban myth? Who knows? Does that matter?

Hotel Grand Chancellor
Views of the Hotel Grand Chancellor and surrounds. January 2012. Flickr: CCL-2012-01-12-IMG_8860-HotelGrandChancellor

It was fascinating to hear the process of how the column had grown into a novel. No, he hadn’t met any red zone dwellers, hadn’t felt the need too. No, the dog Friday was not a kindred spirit and could not have been a cat, but yes, the name was based on Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

“As the writer you are the puppeteer, but you’ve got to be invisible: to write yourself out it, which is very different from writing a column.”

“I’m a literary bastard,” he said, ” I read stuff and I want to be moved by it.”

“It’s a book about love, that’s the nub of where we live.”

WORD Christchurch tweets from the event:

Cover of fish like a drink Cover of Double happiness Cover of Celebrity Cat recipes Cover of The World's your lobster Cover of Where underpants come from?

Joe Bennett in convo – Thursday 24 September

Cover of Alive and kickingJoe Bennett has written his first novel – King Rich. And you can hear him talk all about it this Thursday 24 September. There was a great article by Eleanor Black in The Press on Saturday: Christchurch a broken backdrop for Joe Bennett’s first novel – and anyone who read this will be uber-keen to read King Rich:

Joe Bennett heard a story at a pub – where else –  that he couldn’t resist. A vagrant had made himself at home in the Grand Chancellor Hotel, the 26-storey leaning tower of luxury that was a leading symbol of the city’s ruin until finally demolished by diggers.

You can also get the word from the horses’s mouth (it’s at the Blossom Lady Lounge at Addington Raceway) at a WORD Christchurch evening with Joe Bennett, Thursday 24 September, 7.30pm. Book now!

Cover of fish like a drink Cover of Double happinessCover of Celebrity Cat recipesCover of The World's your lobster Cover of Where underpants come from?

 

Make mine a Double Happiness with a supersized side of bullshit

What would life be like without bullshit? Joe Bennett would really like to know and last night to a packed Geodome audience at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival, he filled the stage with a full-scale rant on that very subject.

I’m fifty-five now and everything pisses me off.

And bullshit pisses him off the most, so much so that he has written a book to help us hone our BS detectors and know exactly how we are being manipulated. It is the stunningly named and packaged Double Happiness – How Bullshit Works.

It was a tour de force performance. Bennett was like a compact, enraged, snarling little pit bull terrier. With a beer in one hand and the audience in the other he filled the stage and the room with his booming voice (including a rather endearing little lisp every now and then and the odd spray of spittle). He was very funny as he bullshitted his way through a tirade against commercial, political and religious manipulation.

He took no prisoners: pukekos, Valerie Adams, Coca-cola (aka God), travel advertising and the Olympics all came in for a lampooning. Oh, and Imprezas – he loathes Imprezas.

The seat next to mine was taken at the last minute by a tall and tanned and young (you see where this is heading?) man . He sauntered in at the last minute as if he had just come off a Camel cigarettes photo shoot. With those complicated amber and bone bracelets that signal “I have backpacked barefoot through Cambodia” and a knuckleduster of a turquoise ring, everything about him screamed “I do not come from Christchurch”. In fact with the ease of long experience of airport delays he told us he was Aaron Smith and he’d come to do a recce on Joe who is the Chair at his event at the festival on Saturday. There was something endearing about that and he appeared to thoroughly enjoy the show. But at the end he seemed subdued, as if  he wondered what he had let himself in for. As I left, I leant across and said: “If it gets ugly to-morrow, just remember that he loves dogs!”

The truth is this could have been the shortest blog of the Fest. Just five little words:

You needed to be there.

Double happiness!

Double HappinessIt’s my Double happiness time! I get to blog on another literary festival and it’s The Press Christchurch Writers Festival right here in Christchurch. I’ve been on the blog team for this event twice before and each time the earth moved.

Third time lucky.

It was only after I’d submitted my selections of preferred events (from my very readable and striking lime green Festival booklet) that I realised I’d chosen only easy-on-the-eye male authors who’d apparently all been born under wandering stars – seems this festival is about the importance of Place for me. See for yourself:

  • Aaron Smith: Shanti Bloody Shanti (An Indian Odyssey)
  • John Lanchester: Capital (London) and Fragrant Harbour (Hong Kong)
  • Chris Cleave:  Incendiary and The Other Hand (Great Britain)
  • Joe Bennett: Double Happiness – How Bullshit Works (the whole world)

There’s no way I could live down a totally male line-up, so I added some ladies to the mix:

The main character in The Secret River gets to the heart of the importance of Place in our lives with this quote:

A chaos opened up inside him, a confusion of wanting. No one had ever spoken to him of how a man might fall in love with a piece of ground … He had not known until this minute that it was something he wanted so much.

How about you, do you have a place that you’ve fallen in love with? And when can we expect to see the book?

Going Without Guilt – travelling stories!

Just back from an hour and a quarter with the travel boys – Ben Hills, Lloyd Spencer Davis and Joe Bennett. I had high expectations of this session, having always wanted to BE a travel writer (in between being forensic pathologist, food critic and French diplomat), and it was most enjoyable.

Christopher Moore was a great chair, and even almost managed to keep (one of) the panellists under control. He asked lots of meaty questions, and I’m not sure there’s room here to do justice to even a couple, but I’ll try to summarize.

The first question was about why each of them had chosen to write travel books.

Joe: Poverty. And an inability to produce a novel.

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Interview bonanza

As the Writers festival draws ever closer, we’ve added some new interviews to the website:

Joe & friend
Joe & friend