The blistering Phoenix Foundation burn up the Bedford

LogoOooh, I love a cheesy alliterative Sun-esque headline, and I also like very muchly Wellington band The Phoenix Foundation.

They played the Bedford last night as part of a nationwide tour to promote their new album Buffalo. The Phoenix Foundation confound the indie rock stereotype. Not  for them unfeasibly tight trousers, a sneer and dicky little neckties (yup, I am thinking of you Pluto). Instead they look like their mother, aided by a pudding bowl, cut their hair at the kitchen table and that they threw some skody old tie-dye t-shirts on mere seconds before galloping on-stage.  

Sartorial elegance may have eluded them but where they excel at are delivering intelligent, catchy tunes counter-balanced by moody “prog-rock”  epics. They played several tracks from the new album,  including  Bitte Bitte, Buffalo and Pot, and many more from previous albums  including Krisk from their Merry Kriskmass EP, Slightest shift in the weather and Hitchcock from Pegasus, and 40 years and Bleaching Sun from Happy Ending. The finale was a touching rendition of TVNZ’s Goodnight Kiwi song, wasted on a Scot such as me, but eliciting  happy, nostalgic little sighs from everyone else.

With a new line-up, introducing bass guitarist Tom Callwood, the band have recently recorded the soundtrack for Taika Waititi’s new movie Boy, having previously worked with him on the movie  Eagle Vs Shark.

If you want your kiwi folk rock, intelligent, emotionally potent and badly dressed,  listen to Phoenix Foundation!

The most surprising thing you will ever hear Simon Schama say

You have to know
when to shut up

This was another well-attended New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week  session with an eager audience at the Embassy Theatre. It was followed by some equally eager spending as the queues for book signing snaked their way around the theatre lobby.

Spare a thought for Margo Lanagan. Yesterday she shared the stage with Neil Gaiman, (“I’ve said his name so you can all whoop”) and today she was co-starring with one of the world’s best known historians, Simon Schama, in a session called Making History. He dominated proceedings a little, simply because of his ebullience. Unfortunately too, a couple of questions that started out being directed at Lanagan ended up as questions for Schama. At one point she waved to remind us that she was there.

As  Schama openly admits, and Sean Plunket found out last night, it’s hard to keep him to task.That said there were some real pearls in this session:

  • On the genesis of a project Schama said he begins with “wistful reflections on the mistakes I made in the last project”. He likes to deal with memories lost, and the people on the receiving end of history. Lanagan likes to have two ideas that clash – she relies of fairy tales and lore and a pre-industrial world as well as an enchanted forest: “It has to feel real and vivid, but not part of history”.
  • Both authors dislike hand feeding the reader. Lanagan prefers oblique references, and as she said in a previous session is “stingy with clues”; Schama says if people “forget how it ends while they’re reading” then he’s done his job.
  • Schama paid compliment to the myth and lore aspects of Lanagan’s work when he said that history stripped of “mischevious myths” and “topographical empathy” was dull. “Multiplicity helps stop historical certainty, which is the close cousin of boredom”.
  • Schama also lamented that too often in history “storytelling is seen is a sign of conceptual vacancy”.

“If you’re going to do something intellectually challenging start with respect for the daunting challenge of the narrative.”

Lanagan said creating a narrative was a matter of “tumbling towards it”. “What a story is trying  to do is unglue things, lay out the pieces and say ‘how do they come together?’. The narrative voice is calm and watchful, putting them together and allowing them to have their head.”

Schama replied: “You’re more of a historical narrator than I am.”

Some further other memorable quotes from questions starting with a response as to whether books were, ‘weapons of war’, as Picasso said of paintings.

  • Schama: “I want my stories to keep people up at night, not to put them to sleep.
  • Lanagan: “They’re more weapons of snark, really”.
  • Schama: “I’m so grateful of spending life with the written word. The word has the power of pushing you into shock, without which we don’t understand what is at stake.”
  • On how the the first decade of the 21st century, Schama said there were two main things to note: The “slow death of the planet and the reality check for the engine of indefinite economic and the unexpected shock of the revival of theocratic tyranny – Christian Muslim and Jew – and those prepared to slaughter in the name of their certainties.
  • And overheard after the session:
    Woman: “I love watching Simon Schama flounder.”
    Man: “If only I could flounder like that.”

Schama’s comedy routine stunning

audiobook coverIt wasn’t Sean Plunket’s legendary interviewing skills that were needed for this session at the Wellington Town Hall, it was his skills at holding a lid down on a conversation. Plunket, like the rest of the hundreds in the audience, was a passenger as Simon Schama’s energy, wit and stand-up comedy brought the house down – almost literally.

Schama couldn’t wait to get on stage, prancing out like a court jester to rapturous applause. During the first answer he sent his microphone flying as he jumped up to demonstrate a point.  Soon he was asking how much insurance the festival had if he dipped the microphone into the water and electrocuted himself. Then Sean had to warn him to move his chair forward otherwise he’d go over backwards.

Yet at the same time as the sideshow, we learnt so much about Schama and his life and his passion for history. British history was always alive for him – his father read Dickens aloud, so the characters seemed real. He was born the night Dresden was bombed – houses on either side of the nursing home he was born in were flattened.

He told how he grew up with a sense of  “imperishable Albion and  extremely perishable Jewish” history. His most well-known work, History of Britain, was partially so good because of the “panic-driven excitement of learning one week before the show” about what he was re-telling.

Schama had taken “a lot of brick bats from the academy” for his performance style, and that he was “proud but not complacent” about his work. Popular history nourishes scholarly history, he said.

“Writing a good script that asks difficult questions without making it feel like homework is the most exacting thing you can do. It makes you think visually and apply a strict and disciplined process of selection.

Making history compelling enough that people wouldn’t turn over to the snooker was a “dramaturgical art,” he said.

“Pay audiences the compliment of communicating difficult subjects in a story-telling way. We are nothing without our stories but our [non-fiction] stories differ from fiction by the courage of the questions we ask.”

So with that in mind, when it came to question time I headed up to the front to ask Simon Schama a question. I got my turn after Wyatt Creech, and I asked how libraries and archives should meet the digital deluge of information so that historians like him (and everyone else) could benefit in the future.

“Embrace it; totally rush to it,” he said.

We are in the “bring it on phase”. More people are reading historical texts now than ever before. The danger comes only when people are unaware that some items are forgeries, and in the moral question about who are the gatekeepers of truth.

Schama is a star, and a brilliantly funny man. If this festival is about inspiring words, he is the embodiment of them. Lots of them. His stand-up jokes about bears are pretty good too.

Audrey Niffenegger: Originality and sneaky technology

coverBy the time I got out of the Derek Johns session the queue for Audrey Niffenegger was filling up the bookshop. Anxious people in line texted friends and waved like excited children when they showed. Lynn Freeman’s introduction laid a great foundation for the discussion ahead – Niffenegger creates “worlds as recognizable to us as our own, but which follow slightly different rules of the universe”.

My elegant colleague Robyn has covered the substantial detail of the session, so I wanted to touch on some of the other aspects that appealed.

I admire Niffenegger’s pursuit of originality and her DIY approach. Speaking of Her fearful symmetry, she said:

… Everything started to acquire opposites and pairs … [there was ] no rhyme or reason, it was a little thing that multiplied. The way you grow things creatively is ask questions; they prompt answers and you ask more questions … and seven years later you have a 463-page novel. That’s how you do it, you don’t have to take MFA course…

Sneaky technology: She cleverly observed how when new technology comes along it imitates the old technology. Book; E-book.

“They will look primitive to us soon,” she said. “I hope they are well designed, I  hope typography and page design are done well  – we had perfected them on the page …”

She was also optimistic about the possibilities technology offers writers – something I suspect publishers might prefer we didn’t think about. They can do things books can’t like enlarge type and make allowances for people who have limited hand movement. A new “killer diller” art form will eventuate. “Bolder and sexier”, we will eventually make material for it and  they will be “stupendous”. She also said she though it won’t be the end of the physical book –  the two will live in symbiosis.

Finally she also mentioned a couple of authors worth following up:

Once upon a deadline … inspiring words in Wellington

Sponsor logoSeven writers, seven laptops, seven mystery locations in  seven hours – that’s how the NZ Post Writers and Readers Week starts, with a session called Once Upon a Deadline. I had a chat with programme manager Laura Kroetsch to find out more about this full-on literary festival, which I’ll  covering on the blog this week.

I’ve been impressed with the approach the organisers take – it’s all about making the private activity of writing public. I’ll be heading along to the Once Upon A Deadline read-off tonight – it should be fantastic.

My schedule includes 17 sessions, with lots of superstar authors and big names on my interview wishlist – Simon Schama, Neil Gaiman, Audrey Niffenegger, Bill Manhire, Emily Perkins and more  – it promises to be a fascinating time. There are also sessions about ethics, 21st-century publishing and lots of creative non-fiction, with a dash of poetry to spice things up. Scientist Richard Dawkins will also get tongues a-wagging.

I’ll post daily so you can see what I’m up to, file reports from the different sessions, post audio and share images on our flickr photostream.

Please ask questions, comment and react to what you read – it’ll be great to have your company!