I’ve had this song in my head since I saw Peter Garrett recently. Not at the Midnight Oil concert, but at the WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of view session at The Piano. It was the last talk in a series of goodies that formed WORD’s suite of Christchurch Arts Festival offerings.
Peter Garrett – musician, former Aussie federal politician, activist – appeared in conversation with the able and amiable broadcaster/journalist Finlay Macdonald, and followed the session with an audience Q & A and a book signing.
Peter’s book is a memoir of his life and career called Big Blue Sky. He found writing it both challenging and gut-wrenching:
It’s not just about what you remember, it’s how honest can you be.
He talked about the reformation of Midnight Oil and the series of concerts they are undertaking, including such stunner venues as Alice Springs and a rainforest in Cairns. Peter reckons they are sounding even better than their heyday.
His broad and expansive knowledge of Australian history as well as other topics made him a thoroughly engaging speaker. He talked politics, music, and more – and his move into federal politics made a lot of sense because he strongly believes:
The system cannot work unless it is infected by people who want it to work.
Peter went with the Labour Party instead of Green because he was “allergic to moral superiority and preachiness”.
There was plenty of music talk for the aficionados. He shared musical influences and passions – The Beatles, Neil Young, Rage against the Machine, Aborigine bands. Recalling seeing Muddy Waters play at ANU university, Peter got shivers right there on stage. So did we.
One thing Fail Safe Fail Better did not do was fail to deliver. Six speakers gave candid, entertaining and unique accounts of both personal and professional failures in their lives.
Not at all negative, the evening was filled with magic. Glenn Colquhoun invoked ghosts of poets past on the walls of the Christchurch Art Centre’s Great Hall and filled the empty space with poetry (Denis Glover’s The Magpies) and song: his own composition of the ill lucked couple in the poem calling to each other.
While Glenn suggested that sometimes words can fail, he didn’t fail at his task; reciting his performance from memory. I thought you were in great voice, Glenn, as was Witi Ihimaera, who as well as getting the audience to sing in rounds (we failed!) and telling us an alternative fairytale (The Ugly Princess) told us all that his incredible success was all somehow a glorious accident…
Victor Rodger regaled us with the fact that failure is in the eye of the beholder. Or is it that you can’t please everyone all the time? A hugely successful playwright (2017 Writer in Residence Victoria University, 2012 Pacific Artist in Residence at the MacMillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, 2009 Ursula Bethell Creative Writing Resident, Canterbury University), Victor’s use of another well-known F-Word in his work fails to impress the one person he wants to be proud of him – his Mother.
The nature of failure follows a pattern; as we say, when one door closes, another opens. Each lost opportunity leads to another, or a different path in life. A higher lesson in there, perhaps, on freedom and predestination.
This was an idea shared by Christchurch Mayor, Lianne Dalziel. Sometimes the timing just isn’t right; the universe has other plans. Our first shot at life and love may be an opportunity to reflect and refine. For her this manifested in a burn-out at Parliament after an exhausting inquiry into the Health Sector, which led to her standing down from Parliament. This left her in a good position to carry Christchurch through its transformation and rebirth.
These experiences are not without wounds. We’ve all been hit by failure, but it’s the resilience we gain that makes us stronger, says Hana O’Regan, Kai Tahu. It’s all in the way you look at it?
A champion of Te Reo, Hana turns life lessons into “rivers of words” writing her way through the experience to the learning on the other side. Each experience brings a lesson, says Hana; they turn up to say, we’ve been through this before, and we can get through it again.
Lastly, and certainly not least, Clementine Ford. Clementine shared a story of mislead youth and heartbreak. This lead us to two realisations: one: life isn’t a John Hughes movie (Pretty in Pink,The Breakfast Club), two: success is not marrying a wanker. Lol.
Fight Like A Girl author Clementine demonstrated her greatest weapon, her wit, in abundance; the lesson in her story being to hold your head high and laugh in the face of crushing (public) rejection.
Some of the stories shared here were so candid that I chose not to share them. Those gems were for our ears only.
My failures? Well, I started the evening keeping to the theme. On a rainy spring night, I failed to find a car park close to the venue (ah the fun of driving around the CBD in circles) and didn’t make the venue on time. Miraculously the event started late. And the rest? Well thats Witi, Glenn and I…
As is often the case when I attend a literary event, I have not read the book of the person speaking (I have good intentions leading up to the event but life generally gets in the way). So I know Clementine Ford only by her reputation as an outspoken feminist and the target of online trolls (it seems, in the modern world, that the first of these things almost always leads to the second). Possibly that’s all you know about her too.
I warm to her immediately. She’s just so cheerful in the face of the abuse that gets flung at her, so “can you believe someone said that?!” about language that is filled with hate, ignorance (and yes, bad grammar). I admire her ability to take rancid, toxic lemons and make mocking, humorous lemonade from them.
Clementine Ford comes across like your best friend who is much smarter and more perceptive than you, and who is prone to dropping hilarious truth-bombs into the conversation while you’re chatting over wine. Except in the auditorium at Christchurch Art Gallery. With 150 other people there. And no wine.
This was obviously a flawed analogy but you get the drift.
She’s also very respectful (not of the trolls) of her audience, warning everyone that there will be some very strong, very unpleasant language shared in the presentation, most of it via screenshots of the “missives” she’s received from various men who feel the need to tell her that she’s wrong, stupid, evil, sexist, fat, sexually unattractive, a professional sex worker, as well as various terrible things that should happen or be done to her. The warning is needed. It’s cumulatively rather overwhelming and makes you feel sick for humanity, even as each one is dissected, commented on and ruthlessly pilloried.
On the upside I’m surprised and delighted to hear Ford, an Australian, acknowledge not only Ngāi Tahu but also Ngāi Tūāhuriri (Christchurch sits in the traditional rohe/territory of this Ngāi Tahu hapu) and to use “Aotearoa” in preference to “New Zealand” because a friend of hers has challenged her to use indigenous names as a statement against colonialism. Also, her pronunciation was better than average.
But back to the trolls. Reading the messages Ford has received from various men makes you wish that they really were misshapen goblins living under bridges and not actual humans walking around with a cellphone in their pocket and the notion that they can say whatever they want to another person, if that person is a woman, with a complete lack of consequences. This is a situation that Ford has tried to turn around as she frequently adopts a “name and shame” approach. This may seem harsh but when you read the things that men have said to her it seems more like a public service than anything. The irony is, though Facebook is happy enough to be the medium of choice for threats of sexual violence and abuse by these trolls, the sharing of such by Ford often violates their “community standards” and has sometimes resulted in her account being blocked. But not those of the people doing the abusing.
Well, that seems a bit screwed up, Facebook. But Ford acknowledges that Facebook has its claws in us and a boycott simply wouldn’t work. Possibly advocating for a change to the laws around online abuse might help.
Ford has other helpful suggestions for dealing with sexism and sexist behaviour such as forcing someone to explain their sexist joke, with “I don’t get it. Why is that funny?” or pretending not to hear the sexist/offensive thing and forcing them to repeat it once or even twice. This subtly shifts the power dynamic in the interaction.
In the online world she is in favour of out and out mockery (with reference to Harry Potter and the boggart – your greatest fear that can only be vanquished by laughing at it). Ford advised deploying a series of gifs, the following of which is my favourite.
This was a really illuminating, funny, and challenging session but one which only a handful of men attended and relatively few young women, two groups I really feel would have benefitted a lot from the realness of Ford’s feminist experiences (and rude jokes about her genitalia).
As it was it ran overtime and nobody wanted to stop, least of all Ford herself. But the talk was being recorded so I’d recommend giving it a listen when it becomes available or –
Try this for an exercise in freedom. Think you’re a failure at art? Take a piece of brown paper and screw it up into a ball. Freeing, or what? Tear out the rough shape of the leaf by hand. Decorate your leaf with a crayon. You can colour with dye and a paintbrush, or leave natural. Display your leaves around the room!
Come along to the Great Hall at Christchurch Arts Centre on Friday; reflect on life and how the struggle to survive can spark the creative mind.