Book event blog posts have a formula: introducing the author, setting the scene and then a chronological or thematic account of the literary chit-chat. But I’m feeling rebellious, so no entrée, no mains and straight to dessert. What is Francis Spufford going to serve up next on the fiction front?
He is currently working on a new novel (hurrah!) set in South London and starting in the year 1944 when a German V2 rocket fell on a branch of Woolworths in New Cross killing 168 people. Each chapter is set in a different year, so far he has got to 1949, and the volume and diversity of research has been hugely challenging. To date he has had to get his head around the intricacies of lino printing, 1970s reel-to-reel technology, what working on a suicide prevention helpline would be like, Nazi skinheads and being a female backing singer in Los Angeles in 1979…whew!
Asked about his late-in-life move into fiction, Francis Spufford replied that as an academic teaching creative writing, at Goldsmiths University of London, he felt ashamed giving advice and guidance on writing fiction without have dipped his own pen in the fiction ink.
He set himself an ambitious agenda for his first novel as he wanted to include: “a duel, a rooftop chase, a trial scene, a love story, bone-crunching violence, rude sex, a mystery and jokes” plus set it in the 18th Century New York and with at least a nod and a wink towards the language and style of the new 18th Century novel. “A mass of incompatible pleasures now but quite in keeping with the period” where “serious intentions and low pleasures could be stuck in together”. It did involve compromise and became essentially a 21st Century novel in an 18th Century manner but one which allows the reader to feel a sense of time travel but without the style being too verbally off-putting.
Setting the novel in historic New York was also important to him as he was drawn to the satisfying reversal of the city past and present:
The sheer tininess of the place then — some 7,000 people — versus the densely populated urban craziness of today.
The fact old New York was parochial versus its current cosmopolitan outlook.
That it was pious, Protestant, and ethnically limited compared with today’s predominantly secular and ethnically complex society.
Mr Smith, the mysterious central character, is a city-slicker — a London sophisticate travelling to the small and provincial New York “a Jane Austen sized village”. This New York is highly politicised and on surface level patriotically Royalist but the reader is aware that change is coming and that British influence is waning.
Francis Spufford was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about early US history, his retention of information researched some time ago but instantly recalled was enviable! He drew parallels between early New York and the US today saying “paranoia about tyranny has featured throughout its history” but he also lamented the topicality of his novel. He hadn’t anticipated Donald Trump and the focus on modern America’s paranoia and darkness.
Francis Spufford also spoke about his Christian faith and the process of writing Unapologetic — his response to Dawkins’ God Delusion. His aim he said “was to write a book that wouldn’t convert but would make belief recognisable to the reader” that faith was not “superstition or madness but meeting some human need”. He was anxious about creating a backlash as he wrote it not as “a good-tempered argument between faith and atheism” but in a more pugnacious attempt to show “that religion didn’t belong in a zoo of weird things but was a human norm”.
This was a bookishly warm and entertaining hour and if you haven’t read Francis Spufford, pull finger and get on with it!
Tuesday 13 March, Space Academy, 371 St Asaph Street. Buy tickets $20 waged, $15 unwaged (service fees apply) Presented by LitCrawl Wellington, Harry Giles appears with the support of the British Council in partnership with Writers’ Centre Norwich, UK as part of the International Literature Showcase.
Harry Josephine Giles is from Orkney, Scotland, and is a writer and performer. They have lived on four islands, each larger than the last. They trained in Theatre Directing (MA with Merit, East 15 Acting School, 2010) and Sustainable Development (MA 1st Class, University of St Andrews, 2009) and their work generally happens in the crunchy places where performance and politics get muddled up.
You can go to Harry’s fulsome website if you wish to delve more deeply into their work but, as a precursor to the event, I will give you an overview.
I like Harry’s “mission statement” (my quotation marks): “My work is about what it feels like to live under capitalism, and how to survive and resist in a violent world.” I think many of us realise that capitalism is a flawed, if not failing, system for human beings. If Kylie Jenner can wipe $US1.3 billion off the share market value of the social media app, Snapchat, just by tweeting that she doesn’t use it any more, then clearly capitalism is ridiculous. If CEOs of major global corporations can earn many hundreds of times more than their workers, then clearly capitalism is amoral. And evidence of the violent tendencies of the human animal are widespread.
Harry is a very busy artist. They are all over many different media for conveying their art; poetry, video, installation and the internet being some of the ways Harry explores ideas and makes art.
Our catalogue doesn’t contain any of Harry’s work at present, but they have written this interesting piece about stone-hearted people called The Stoneheart Problem and you can watch and listen to Harry Giles read from their debut poetry collection, Tonguit Filmed at the Scottish Poetry Library, Harry reads Poem in which nouns, verbs and adjectives have been replaced by entries from the Wikipedia page List of Fantasy Worlds.
So I’m looking forward to hearing and seeing how Harry Giles critiques life in the modern world and reporting back to you, gentle reader.
Having sported a beard of varying bushiness for many years, I have a longstanding interest in facial hair, so I was delighted to discover that this was the topic of a talk by Lucinda Hawksley at the Christchurch Art Gallery on Sunday, presented by WORD Christchurch. On a rainy Canterbury afternoon an audience of bearded and un-bearded alike almost filled the Art Gallery’s auditorium to hear all about the fascinating history of facial hair from ancient Mesopotamia to the modern hipster, and all points in between.
Using pictures mostly taken from the National Portrait Gallery, Lucinda’s fascinating talk focused mostly on European examples, but we also heard about how dangerous and painful it must have been to have your face shaved in ancient Egypt (apparently they used sharp flints and mussel shells, risking nasty cuts and blood poisoning), and how the ancient Egyptians liked to be buried wearing false beards (women and babies included!). Since then beards have fallen, periodically, in and out of fashion. Initially popular in Ancient Greece (where they implied high status and masculine beauty), but less so in Ancient Rome, they lost favour after Alexander The Great insisted that his soldiers should be clean shaven. Throughout history, beards have been associated with barbarians, although the often cited etymological link between them appears to be less clear cut. In medieval times, suits of armour were often designed to accommodate the long and luxuriously flowing facial hair that was common at the time.
Lucinda with her ancestor Charles Dickens and his 'doorknocker' beard, which his friends & family loathed. pic.twitter.com/zUh2jPqOoH
As Lucinda’s talk entered the early modern era, the focus switched to British beards, and we discovered the astonishing fact that periods when beards were in highest fashion seem to coincide with female monarchs. The reigns of Queens Elizabeth I, Victoria, and Elizabeth II were all times when beards flourished, and in the first two cases, the subsequent ascension of a King to the throne resulted in an immediate and rapid decline in facial hair. Interestingly, more recently, men have grown longer beards at times when women’s rights movements have been particularly strong (e.g. women’s suffrage in the late Victorian period, women’s lib in the 1960s, etc.).
Lucinda’s talk was richly illustrated with portraits of famously bearded men from the extremely fashionable, and much emulated, pencil-thin moustache of Lord Byron, (which would appear again in the 20th century as the Hollywood moustache of Clark Gable, Erroll Flynn, and others), to the sumptuous sideburns of Charles James Napier, the extraordinary neck-beard of Robert Browning, and the familiar “door knocker” beard of Charles Dickens (Lucinda’s great-great-great-grandfather, who started his foray into facial hair by entering a moustache-growing competition and then got hooked, despite his family’s protestations). We are also shown the glorious mutton chops of Dickens’s illustrator, George Cruikshank. (Apparently Charles Darwin replaced Dickens on the British £10 note because his beard is more difficult to forge.) We also learned the different outcomes that being a bearded women can bring, depending on the times, from ruthless exploitation as a freak (Barbara Urselin), to admiration as an unusual sex symbol (Annie Jones).
The greatest flourishing of the beard came in the late Victorian period after soldiers returned from the Crimean War with large beards necessitated by the extreme cold and lack of shaving facilities, making beards a mark of the hero. Coinciding with the women’s suffrage movement, this beard craze affected all levels of society, and for the first time facial hair was no longer a signifier of class. (Prior to the invention of the safety razor, regular shaves were largely the preserve of the well-heeled). During this era, barbers had a hard time of it and had to come up with inventive ways of making a living, with aggressive marketing of hair dyes and oils, leading to advent of the antimacassar.
By Edwardian times the beard had all but gone, with the novelist Frank Richardson labelling it “face fungus”, and the final death knell came with World War I and the need for close-fitting gas masks. Despite some notable exceptions, e.g. Salvador Dali (“the most famous moustache in history”), and the Handlebar Club (founded in 1947 and still going strong, requiring the growth of a moustache with “graspable extremities”), facial hair was largely gone until the 1960s when it reappeared with the hippy movement and again, as history repeated itself one more time, was correlated with a period of women’s lib. We were finally brought up to date via Tom Selleck’s moustache, and the designer stubble of the 1980s, to the recent hipster beard and the controversy surrounding Conchita Wurst. The audience were captivated by these tales of the hirsute, and the hour seemed to fly by. Lucinda has a real gift for storytelling and there is so much more to learn about the history of facial hair in her recent book “Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards”, on which her talk was based.
For more fun with beards, the library has all sorts of great stuff including a graphic novel about a “Gigantic Beard That Was Evil”, manuals on how to grow a handsome beard, and even a couple of children’s books.
The idea for the book grew out of a 2014 blog post in which Reni, a young British journalist of Nigerian heritage, wrote of her “frustration that discussions of race and racism were being led by those not affected by it,” and that when she tried to talk about these issues was told that there wasn’t actually a problem or accused her of being angry. The irony of marking this line in the sand was that suddenly lots of people wanted to listen to Reni’s point of view – including a full (mostly white) art gallery auditorium.
There are a number of themes in the book. One is history, and Reni is keen for black Britons to write themselves back into history. The British connection to slavery and to Africa is deep. I studied economic and social history 1750-1875 at A-level and slavery and colonialism was barely mentioned. I find this appalling because:
a) hello – where was the cotton for the cotton mills coming from?
and b) it has taken me until the last week or two to realise this.
It is this kind of oversight that Reni is trying to point out.
Whiteness isn’t the default. Whiteness isn’t neutral. There are other ways of doing things; there are other points of view. Which is actually quite liberating if you think about.
Reni was assured and matter of fact, and very easy to listen to. Another topic she highlights is feminism. What is the point of feminism that is only for white women and doesn’t have a space for black women and others? Issues don’t happen in isolation, and overlap and intersect all the time.
This truly was a session to make you think about and observe how you experience the world, to make you want to explore further by reading her book, and to shift your point of view.
This is a slightly odd blog. I don’t know a huge amount about Reni Eddo-Lodge, and because of the way her session at the upcoming WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View series at the Christchurch Arts Festival is titled, I want to go into it with as open a mind as possible and without too many preconceptions. Additionally, I’m a few places down the holds list for her book so won’t get to see it before I see her.
However, I can tell you about why I want to listen to her. I vaguely saw the title of her book and WORD session, Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race, on Twitter and then came across a book review in The Guardian and the concept piqued my interest. I’ve been reading quite a lot about diversity, racism and colonialism and also getting my head around intersectionality, so when I saw that Reni was coming to Christchurch I jumped at the opportunity to listen to her. I want to leave my white privilege at the door and make the most of a chance to gain insight into someone else’s perspective.
In this day and age, listening may be one of our most valuable tools.
Highly-respected British historian and biographer A. N. Wilson, author of The Victorians;
Science writer James Gleick exploring the mysteries of time travel;
Novelist and Kiwi expat Stella Duffy, who is currently completing Ngaio Marsh’s unfinished novel Money in the Morgue;
Canadian storyteller Ivan Coyote, who was the breakout star of last year’s popular WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival.
WORD Christchurch’s programme director Rachael King says:
The audience for our last festival increased by 50% on the previous festival, showing there is a real appetite for these thought-provoking events in Christchurch. We are thrilled to collaborate with the Auckland Writers Festival to be able to bring such high-calibre speakers to the city.
Get your tickets now. If you buy tickets by 21 April, you do in the draw to win a 10-session pass to the Auckland Writers Festival, which runs 16 to 21 May.
Another great option is the Autumn Season Pass – it costs $90 plus $3 booking fee and gets you into all six events. All season pass holders automatically also go in the draw to win books from all six writers, courtesy of UBS.
Get reading these six writers – visit our page WORD Autumn Season and find their books in our collection. Or go to your local bookshop.
Congratulations on the amazing success of the recent WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. Putting together a literary festival seems a massive undertaking. How long did it take you to plan and execute?
Each festival takes a year to plan, although some foundation work is done in the preceding year as well. This year we had a fantastic and very hard working team led by Executive Director Marianne Hargreaves. My job is to plan what the festival will look like – everyone else makes it happen!
The festival featured 80 events and over 150 writers and speakers. How did you put the programme together? Or to reprise the title of one of the festival events: Where do you get your ideas from? (Did you brainstorm with a committee or were these ideas all your own?)
I do call for input of ideas from our board of trustees, who are all avid readers, and from my Twitter followers who are a clued-up bunch, but mostly the ideas come from reading books, reading coverage of books on the internet, checking upcoming publishing schedules (and publishers sometimes pitch their authors to me), and generally thinking about the issues and themes that the world is concerned with. What moves people? What troubles them? What do they want to know more about?
Outside of my work hours I am constantly thinking about the programme and can get lost for days down the rabbit hole of the internet following ideas. We also work closely with the Melbourne and Brisbane Writers’ Festivals as well as Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, so we send each other ideas.
How did you hear about these various authors/speakers, and how did you decide which ones to invite over?
All different ways, but here are some examples. The Canadian writers (Ivan Coyote, Elizabeth Hay and Sheila Watt-Cloutier) came to me through Hal Wake, the director of the Vancouver Writers Festival, which I attended in October last year. I saw that Tim Flannery had a book out on climate change, which was a topic I wanted to cover; his partner Kate Holden came highly recommended to me by another writer.
I found Caitlin Doughty via Twitter, where she was tweeting macabre things that appealed to me, which led me to her website where to my delight I discovered she had recently published a book. Then I saw her speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last year and that sealed the deal. Ali Cobby Eckermann and Elisa Washuta came through the Christchurch Sister Cities programme – both writers were recommended to me by literary people in Adelaide and Seattle respectively.
Alok Jha was recommended to me by someone who had seen him in person in the UK. John Freeman I met in Auckland last year, then again in Vancouver and New York. He was coming out for the Melbourne Writers Festival so I extended the invitation to Christchurch.
Did you start with a theme in mind or did the theme emerge later?
You send out hundreds of invitations and hope that some will stick. In this case, the ones that were sticking started revolving around two common themes – the planet and its people. Nearly all the writers who had accepted my invitation write about quite political things, whether it is the environment, gender, human rights, sexual politics, life and death. I decided to declare the Planet & its People as the official theme because I knew it would appeal to people who care about what is happening in the world right now.
The festival ranged over a myriad of topics like climate change, water, feminism, sex, positive death-acceptance, true crime, LGBT issues, poetry, migrants’ voices, war stories, inclusive cities, and political cartoons. How did you know what topics would appeal to a general audience? What combination and balance were you looking to achieve?
These are topics that engaged people care about. I was looking for a combination and balance of thought-provoking, challenging, enlightening, uplifting and entertaining.
Do your literary interests span all these different genres, topics, and cultural hot buttons? Did you read all the books featured?
I wish I could say I read books by all 150 speakers at the festival but alas no, I didn’t have the time! My personal tastes run to literary fiction and personal essays mostly, but I can still appreciate a topic and trust my sources, and I always make sure the speaker is engaging foremost.
You’ll notice I managed to smuggle my musical tastes in there as well, with the Flying Nun celebration night and Hollie Fullbrook from Tiny Ruins, and also included comics, performance poetry, live storytelling, journalism and TV writing, so WORD is no longer just about books.
Some authors were interviewed on stage; others took to the stage by themselves; and yet others were part of a panel. How did you decide which format would best showcase each author’s talents?
A lot of it was led by the writers themselves. It is a big ask to get someone to prepare an address, so many authors prefer the ‘in conversation’ format. It is good to have a mixture of both, so I always ask which format the writers prefer.
Panels are a good way to make sure an international author has more than one opportunity to be on stage; and with local writers, they are a good way to include as many writers as possible, and to cover some interesting topics beyond ‘tell us about your book’.
How did you decide who would chair each panel or interview each author?
I attend a lot of writers’ festivals and am always paying close attention to the chairs! In many cases a good chair person is as important as the speaker people have come to see. Chairing takes a certain set of skills – confidence to carry the responsibility, but also the confidence to take a back seat and not dominate.
Chairing a panel is a kind of mediation as well, where it’s essential that you allow everyone on the panel to get their word across, and be prepared for conflict. Managing audience questions is another skill! I also look for chairs who can go with the flow of conversation rather than rigidly over prepare and stick to their questions no matter what. As far as who to match with whom: instinct.
What guided your decision-making regarding workshop topics and the people who would run them?
I wanted a range of topics, and we certainly had that: fiction, song-writing, the business of publishing, memoir, indigenous storytelling. They arose from looking at who was coming and who had experience teaching. The workshops were all very popular, so we will definitely look at adding more next time – and as Tracy Farr’s fiction workshop and Scott Pack’s How to Perfect Your Submission workshop sold out so quickly, will look at more fiction workshops next time and another about getting published. The Taku Kupu Ki Te Ao workshop had three teachers in addition to the facilitator, and by all accounts they got as much out of it as the students!
What gave you the idea to launch the immensely successful new events like Oratory on the Ōtākaro, and the New Regent Pop-Up Festival?
The Ōtākaro walk was conceived in consultation with Ngāi Tahu who are a great supporter of the festival. We are keen to regularly feature Ngāi Tahu speakers and stories. Look out for more walks at future festivals!
The Pop-Up was inspired by a combination of things – wanting to expand the fringe programme which creates accessible events in interesting spaces; wanting to include as many Christchurch writers in the programme as we could; and my visit to the Lit Crawls in Seattle and San Francisco last year. The organisers are keen for us to become part of the Lit Crawl family but there is already a LitCrawl (note different spelling!) in Wellington and we don’t want to detract from that. But the New Regent Street space was an excellent way to test the waters for this kind of event, and I hope it will become a regular feature of future festivals. It added so much character to the festival.
Any kinks you want to iron out for next festival or any things you want to redress?
Yes, but I’m keeping those to myself as they kinks mostly happened behind the scenes and we need to maintain the image of a swan gliding across a still lake while its legs work furiously below the surface!
What were the personal highlights of this festival for you?
Oh, so many! I’m not supposed to have favourites, and as I was behind the scenes, I missed much of the festival. But I will say I was pretty proud to have Ivan Coyote and Caitlin Doughty, and the Hear My Voice event and Flying Nun event gave me goosebumps. I thought the Stars are on Fire showcase went perfectly (but I am biased), and hearing Tiny Ruins debut a beautiful new song just about had me in tears!
What are the perks of being the festival’s literary director?
Meeting interesting writers! Championing books, especially New Zealand books. Getting to travel to other festivals and to collaborate with them as well. I get a lot of free books, which is a big bonus of course.
What ideas have already sparked for the next festival?
As it’s two years away, I’ll be reissuing invitations to some people who couldn’t make it this time around. But look out! We have an amazing line-up in the planning for our Autumn Season in May, in partnership with Auckland Writers Festival, and will also have a programme of events within the Christchurch Arts Festival next year.
What do you do when you’re not planning literary festivals?
I should be writing books! But the festival takes up too much of my headspace at the moment, so I’ll say I like walking and reading, spending time with my kids. And I have recently taken up horse-riding after a 25 year gap, so that is my current obsession.
Thank you very much, Rachael, for your time, and congratulations once again on the success of the festival!
The biennial book binge that is the WORD Writers & Readers Festival is back for 2016, and the programme launched tonight at The Press building on Gloucester Street is bursting with authorial tastiness.
Christchurch will play host to over 150 writers and speakers over four crazy, crazy days and nights on the 24th to the 28th August. The range of events embraces the standard hour-long author talk, panel debates, poetry readings, book launches, a comedy panel show, Pechakucha night, exhibitions, workshops, storytelling, the Ngaio Marsh Award Ceremony for Best Crime Novel, lectures, family events, a historical walking tour and a fringe festival. Blimey.
Literary Director Rachael King has put together a programme with themes that cover the full torrid schmozzle of humanity: life and death, gender, sexuality, indigenous rights, migration, the climate and yes, even the F-word …feminism.
2050 Tim Flannery, Mai Chen, Bronwyn Hayward and Shelia Watt-Cloutier chaired by Kim Hill paint a picture of earth in 2050 with reference to climate, diversity, indigenous rights and citizenship. Utopia or dystopia?
Margaret Wilson is coming to Christchurch on Sunday 30 August to speak on The Struggle for Sovererignty. This event is part of the Shifting Points of View – WORD Christchurch at the Christchurch Arts Festival. Margaret is Professor of Law and Public Policy at the University of Waikato, and she has been an MP and Speaker of Parliament. She will be in conversation with Dr Bronwyn Hayward, author and political scientist at the University of Canterbury.
This session is timely and relevant:
In the era of public choice and free markets, and when widespread public protest against global treaties such as the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement is having little effect, does the New Zealand state still have the best interests of its individual citizens at heart? Margaret Wilson argues that the shift to a neo-liberal public policy framework has profoundly affected the country’s sovereignty and that New Zealanders must continue to engage in the struggle to retain it for the sake of individual and community wellbeing.
Thanks to Margaret for answering our quick questions.
What are you looking forward to doing in Christchurch?
I’m looking forward to meeting people in Christchurch who share my values.
What do you think about libraries?
Libraries are essential for a democratic community – they provide pleasure, knowledge and well being for a community. (My sister is a librarian!)
What would be your “desert island book”?
I would take the bible and the Koran to try understand why religion is so important to so many people.
Share a surprising fact about yourself.
If I had the time and money I would tour the world watching cricket.
Start your Sunday with a trip, of the imaginary sort. The inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture is a celebration of our Cantabrian Queen of the imagination, and this lecture is set to become a Festival staple.
The first lecture ‘An Unreal House Filled with Real Storms’ is appropriately by the brilliant Elizabeth Knox and is introduced by children’s author and literary activist Kate de Goldi.
If you are a fan of comics and graphic novels, get along to this session on Sunday, 31 August 4pm at The Physics Room – philosopher Damon Young; film-maker and cartoonist Jonathan King; Young Adult author Karen Healey join local comics hero (and former Batgirl writer) Dylan Horrocks for a free-ranging panel discussion looking at Hollywood, sexism, ideology, and more.
I reckon the graphic novel Hicksville is up there in the pantheon of New Zealand books. In this session, Dylan Horrocks talks with film-maker and cartoonist Jonathan King about his latest books Incomplete Works, and the forthcoming Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen (check it out online)
I am going to get to this on Sunday morning. A rare chance to hear that wonderful and weird instrument the theremin in action.