Steve Braunias reports from the 2017 Going West festival – held for the first time, and forever, he hopes, in Henderson.
There were writers of distinction all over the place at the 2017 Going West literary festival held in the weekend but the star of the show was Henderson. The annual event has been staged in Titirangi for the past 20 years; a fire at the war memorial hall on August 19 forced organisers to hurriedly look elsewhere, and so it was that operations were moved to the Henderson Council Chambers, that beautiful, half-abandoned pile above the railway station.
Well, thank Christ for the fire, because the venue was a vast improvement on the ancient, creaky, draughty, faintly really depressing hall in Titirangi. God I’ve hated appearing over the years at that cold old hall in Titirangi! God I’ve hated just even having to go to Titirangi! It’s miles away from anywhere, it’s not on the train network, it doesn’t have a mall, it’s a smug, rat-surrounded village which had some literary merit when Murray Grey ran his second-hand bookstore but that closed years ago. Titirangi is essentially the Waiheke Island of land, as insufferable.
I got the 131 bus from my house in Te Atatu peninsula on Saturday and again on Sunday and both times I got to Henderson in about 17 minutes. I walked across the road to the train station, and took the escalator up to the council chambers. Heaven knows that former Waitakere mayor Sir Bob Harvey was responsible for a raft of terrible ideas during his long reign but he was also in possession of genius, and one of his greatest ideas was to broadcast classical music playing 24/7 from loudspeakers at the top of the escalator in the public space outside the council building. Opera, too, sometimes. His notion was that it discouraged taggers from sticking around – they hated the music so much, they just had to leave. Good job. They can get fucked. The music which greeted guests as they arrived at the 2017 Going West festival was like a warm welcome.
There was free tea and coffee, and free fruit. Ticket holders got a hot lunch. Unity Books set up a stall. There were long, low black leather couches. Bill Manhire was there, Witi Ihimaera also. And Paula Morris and Tina Makereti and Colin Hogg and Russell Brown, oh yeah and I met this guy that I hadn’t seen in ages who now lives on a commune in the Coromandel, and then ran into another guy who told me that someone who we both knew had lost an arm and his wife ran off with their builder in Sydney’s Blue Mountains. Anyway, the place was packed the entire weekend.
Guests could come and go to the West City mall across the road. They could walk along the station platform and study a quite weird but also fetching mural of west Auckland writers Maurice Gee, Maurice Shadbolt, and Dick Scott. They could step around the corner and take a breather in the lovely little Japanese garden. They could go up to that nearby bright and thriving Disneyland of fast food franchising, Lincoln Road. Or they could just sit around in the centrally heated, entirely comfortable council chambers. There were only 15 minutes between sessions, and the programme was varied and imaginative. The theatre had a low stage – a low stage at literary festivals is the best stage; writers aren’t elevated people – and the Matariki constellation is depicted on the smooth wooden walls.
I chaired a session with Diana Wichtel, the great Listener writer, now the author of a very powerful, very good family memoir, Driving to Treblinka. I said to the audience, “It makes me laugh that our historians and literary biographers win so many awards, because unlike Diana, they can’t fucking write!” The next session featured Moana Maniopoto, who chaired Anne Salmond, the award-winning historian. Oh well!
That was on Saturday. The next day, Jesse Mulligan chaired a session in which I gabbled on, and on, about my ode to west Auckland, The Man Who Ate Lincoln Road. And that’s the thing about Going West: it’s supposedly a celebration of west Auckland, but Titirangi has nothing to do with west Auckland. It barely counts as west Auckland. The busy, beat-up zones of Glendene, Glen Eden, Te Atatu South, Te Atatu peninsula, Ranui, Massey, Sunnyvale, Fruitvale, and above all, the shabby, bleak, interesting, diverse, lively commercial and policing centre of Henderson – that’s west Auckland. That’s going west. That’s the place where the festival ought to be held forever more. I hope so, anyway.
The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.