Wellington (Image: Naomi Arnold)

Random, weird, adventurous: a report on the New Zealand Festival’s writers and readers programme

The Spinoff Review of Books literary editor Steve Braunias reports from the weekend’s events at the New Zealand Festival in Wellington.

Wellington! O city of the institutionalised Māori greeting and the office training day, its steep, high banks pinned with yellow gorse flowers, the sign in Eastbourne that reads in a sing-song rhythm LITTLE BLUE PENGUINS CROSSING AT NIGHT, the lines of verse by Denis Glover sculpted in rock at the water’s edge (“the harbour is an ironing board”) – plainly one of the great cities of the world, made for long walks and artistic practice. I fell in love with it at first sight. I was 17, fresh off the train. I stepped into a second-hand bookstore called Smith’s. I got talking to a green-eyed shop assistant; we met again 10 years later, and went to sleep with the sound of the sea clawing at the rocks of her cottage on a wild shore. City of romance, and books, always books – Wellington, the book-lined city, with the National Library, the Alexander Turnbull Library, Victoria University Press, the International Institute of Modern Letters, Unity Books on Willis Street, and, in the weekend, at the Michael Fowler Centre and nearby Circa Theatre and some sort of pop-up Spiegeltent thing with a billowing circus roof, the 2018 New Zealand Festival’s writers and readers programme.

They flew in writers from Edinburgh, New York, Oxford, Sydney, New Mexico. I took the 132 bus from Te Atatu to Queen St and then the SkyBus to Auckland airport. I was minding my own business at the gate when a woman came up. She was a voice from the past in Wellington, someone I’d not seen in 38 years. Back then Kelly Ellis was a journalism student who lived in motorbike leathers, and now she was a criminal defence lawyer and the Labour Party candidate for Whangarei. She was with her partner. “I call her the church lady,” she said. The strange thing was that we were ticketed in the same row on the flight to Wellington. Even stranger, Kelly brought out the book she packed to read on the plane – Smoking In Antarctica, a selection of my newspaper columns, published 2010. Books, always books.

I got in on Thursday and left on Sunday. All I saw of Wellington was a 20-minute walk in a straight line down Cuba Street, hoofing from my hotel to the three New Zealand Festival venues, back and forth, stopping hither and tither for fried prawns and doughnuts. It was a fairly narrow experience of the city. But I had a very good time, in attendance at various festival sessions, among many brilliant minds at just about the most unusual literary festival on record. Programme director Mark Cubey had gone for a lot of genre writers – horror, fantasy, sci-fi, physics, comics, data journalism. You had to look far and wide for signs of an author of ye olde literary fiction. Was it sending a message to the customary patrons of writers festivals, ie ye oldies, that it was time a younger audience were made to feel welcome? Certainly several elderly people – mainstays of the biannual New Zealand Festival, loyal supporters from way back – who I spoke to said that’s how they saw it. They were kind of bemused. They hadn’t booked as many sessions as they used to. They were rather of the opinion that they’d been sidelined. The thing is that they didn’t mind too much, and accepted it was a jolly good thing to attract avid readers of sci-fi and such. But others who I ran into were most critical. One author scorned Cubey’s programme. “Random,” she laughed, derisively, “and weird.”

Random and weird! Well, it was true that several overseas authors were people no one had ever fucking heard of, even in their own countries. Also, sci-fi and that sort of thing has a kind of…marginal appeal. Inexplicably, Cubey had booked US fantasy writer Ian Tregillis to appear on a Sunday afternoon at St Peter’s Village Hall in Paekakariki. A Sunday afternoon at St Peter’s Village Hall in Paekakariki would not, on the face of things, seem the best place to stage an appearance by the emerging author of a novel about British warlocks engaged in battle with Nazi mutants. Ticket sales for the event to be held on a Sunday afternoon at St Peter’s Village Hall in Paekakariki: one. Comically, there was a competing event that Sunday at the quiet, charming seaside village nearly an hour north of Wellington: the annual mulled wine festival. The session was cancelled. Tregillis was shifted to the city, where he had a better chance of attracting more than one fan.

A great suit on guest speaker Matt Nippert (Image: Steve Braunias)

I saw Tregillis on a panel alongside Wellington novelist Elizabeth Knox and Indonesian writer Intan Paramaditha. Tregillis cut a strange figure. He wore a snug gray woolen waistcoat over a scarlet shirt and a knotted tie, and brushed his sandy hair to one side. He gave a reading – you know, Nazi mutants vs British warlocks – from his phone in an aquamarine case. He had some fascinating things to say about magic and reality, and Paramaditha, too, provided insight into mystical zones when she spoke about parables in the Koran, and remembered one particular story where women were given an apple and a knife, and instead of cutting the apple, they cut their hands…As for Knox, I’ve been hearing for years that she’s always pretty damned great onstage at writers festivals, and I witnessed what all the fuss was about – she reads her work with intensity and drama, and reveals the workings of a brilliant mind when she talks about writing. At question time, I was too shy to put up my hand and ask something that was on my mind; a while ago, I’d read a 1970s Pan anthology of horror stories, and was struck that the theme was entrapment, that being imprisoned or entombed was the thing that most of the writers were afraid of – what were Knox, Paramaditha, and Tregillis afraid of? Knox told the audience she has an ambition to write a ghost story. Perhaps she’s afraid of ghosts. I hope she writes that book.

But what I want to say about that event is even though it wasn’t devoted to a literary subject I’m especially familiar with, and I’d never read any of the three authors, I was very glad to be there and enjoyed it very much. My thoughts on the 2018 New Zealand Festival writers and readers programme is that it was innovative and original; actually, I’d settle for random and weird, because that sounds more interesting. Another guest described it thus: “Adventurous.” It was all of these things.

It wasn’t altogether or entirely successful. Only about 40-50 people went to the session by US fantasy writer Charlie Jane Anders. I went to see Lloyd Jones in conversation with Charlotte Wood; it was packed, a sell-out or close to it, but God it got boring, and my mind wandered, to the point where I was on Twitter asking festival guest Moana Maniapoto to bring me some doughnuts. Jones was crook as a dog, that didn’t help, but Wood chaired it quite badly – generic questions, nothing that pushed against Jones. A few years ago Jones and I took the boat out to Kapiti Island and gave a talk at some literary gathering. He was superb. He talks more like a writer than any writer I’ve ever heard. That brainy, engaged Jones sometimes emerged at the event at the Fowler Centre. He was there to speak about his new novel The Cage. He described one of the things that set it off was seeing – and smelling – a great many refugees sleeping in a railway station in Hungary. “In the west, we’ve forgotten what we smell like. We wash it off.” Most reviewers of The Cage have remarked on the continual references to the shit produced by the two main characters, who are locked in a cage. It’s only washed off once a day when a hose is turned on for exactly two minutes. Jones also told the story about a friend who emailed him a film. It showed an Iraqi insurgent walking towards a US tank. He was asked to desist. He did not desist. The tank opened fire. The film showed the upper half of his body turning to a “crimson cloud”, as Jones said, while the legs, comically, horribly, kept walking. “I watched that many times,” said Jones. This time I asked a question. I asked, “Why?” He said, “Because it was interesting.” The idea of watching, like the idea of shit, is central to The Cage. I don’t know if I want to read The Cage.

Rapt audience at the session with Peter Black and Steve Braunias

Bored at the Jones session, now and then; bored, thoroughly, at the readings given by poet Therese Lloyd and memoirist Gigi Fenster, at their Victoria University Press book launches, but that event was made thrilling by the launch speech given by Damien Wilkins. In a sense it was basically their teacher at the IIML presenting two of his advanced students with a merit certificate sort of thing. But the pleasure was listening to Wilkins’s prose. In 2002, when he wrote a fantastic essay When Famous People Came to Town, published by Lloyd Jones’s short-lived but excellent firm Four Winds Press, I remarked to a well-known novelist: “This fellow Damien Wilkins is incapable of writing a bad sentence.” How the well-known novelist squirmed with envy! But the claim holds up. Wilkins’s launch speech was a class act. Plus he reminded me of footballer Trevor Brooking – languid, slender, likely blessed with an educated left foot. The only New Zealand author who delivers a launch speech to the same high, fluent standard is Greg O’Brien, who is also based in Wellington. As for the actual books they launch….I don’t mean to suggest that these two gentlemen can make anything sound good, because that implies they’re selling a false bill of goods, but I do recommend that it’s wise to get the fuck out of Dodge as soon as their speeches are done, and before the authors of the launched book open their mouths and ruin the spectacle.

A third author had his book launched at the event: the great Vincent O’Sullivan, who has a new novel, All This By Chance. He didn’t choose to read from it. I’m not sure why. He relented the following day at a memorable session alongside Diana Wichtel, chaired by Paula Morris. It was packed, another sell-out, or close to it. Tom Scott was there. How the author of Drawn Out: A Seriously Funny Memoir must have gritted his teeth with rage and envy when Morris said that her money was on Wichtel winning the non-fiction category at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards in May! Scott is a finalist. But I saw him afterwards, cheerfully lining up to get his copy of Driving to Treblinka signed by Wichtel. I mentioned to Scott that I was knocked out by O’Sullivan’s flair for an epigram, that he kept busting out one-liners of wit and wisdom all throughout the session. Tom told a story about former Listener editor Peter Stewart leaving the magazine to run a motel in Taupo; Scott remembers O’Sullivan saying to him, “Who would want to empty adulterers ashtrays?”

I lined up to get my copy of All This By Chance signed by O’Sullivan. Both authors had spoken wonderfully well – and Paula Morris gave a masterclass in chairing, all her questions inspired by her ability to listen to what was being said, and responding to it, without notes or at least without any evidence of notes, happy to sit there with a sweet, serene smile on her face.

Hera Lindsay Bird, Patricia Lockwood, and Courtney Sina Meredith at the New Zealand Festival (Image: Courtney Sina Meredith)

Michele A’Court chaired the opening night gala with her customary elan. It was International Women’s Day, and I sat between a woman who writes novels and a woman who writes poetry. Numerous women were called to the stage and said things. Kim Hill was the star, in full hilarious flight, who announced right at the start that she wasn’t going to read out a short story, or a poem, or an essay, but this was lies: in fact it was a beautifully composed essay, a narrative that only appeared to be an improvised bunch of gags but told a story that ended with real feeling and intimacy. It made you think that the shame of her Saturday morning show was that it had guests on it. They get in the way, they only exist to interrupt – but of course they’re her raw material, or were at the opening night gala, as she told of some of the guests who had hated her, accused her of terrible things, were afraid of her. They were all men. “I mean,” she said, “women hate me too, but less ostentatiously.” I think this got the loudest laugh.

The other speakers were…a mixed bag. Charlie Jane Anders, Selina Tusitala Marsh, and Harry Giles were very charming. Playwright and poet Renee, 88, got even closer than Kim Hill to receiving a standing ovation – and that was just when she came on the stage, an alert and vivid presence. Cookbook author Annabel Langbein came onstage with all the confidence of an ox, and would not be moved – she spoke for about 10 days, reading a boring story of one of her travels in South America. “Pronto…The heavy air…Vagabonds…Meat…Pronto…Grinding poverty…” I used to judge unpublished travel writing at the annual Travcom awards; the standard was quite bad, and there were many long, jokey, meaningless tales, all better than Langbein’s monologue. I wrote on my notebook KILL ME and gave it to the woman novelist. She handed it back with the word PRONTO.

Later, an activist named Marianne Elliott spoke entirely in PC slogans, and even busted out that old museum piece, “herstory”. She concluded, “Women’s voices are a wind that gets in the cracks!” The woman poet nearly died of laughter. I’m not sure she was feeling it. A’Court had said onstage, “Tonight feels like a historic moment…#MeToo, Time’s Up, the prime minister’s pregnancy…I think there is a tear in the fabric of the patriarchy!” The woman poet leaned towards me, and whispered, “I feel I’m at a religious revival.” All around her, people were hallelujahing; the opening night gala went off.

A journalist and a novelist exchange notes as Annabel Langbein chunters on and on (Scan: Steve Braunias)

The fabric of the patriarchy took the starring role at a session featuring Matt Nippert and Keith Ng from the data journalism collection agency. The two Herald journalists spoke of their research and their spreadsheets; I understood not a fucking word, but in any case I only had eyes for Matt Nippert’s suit. The patriarchal fabric never looked so groovy. It was a loose, brown, disheveled, faded suit, a suit of the kind that no one has worn since circa 1983, a suit that was neither cool nor anything remotely resembling a hipster’s garment, but it was a suit for the ages, an individual’s suit, a loner’s suit, a thinker’s suit, a suit that made Nippert look more like a novelist than any novelist alive – I took photos of the suit, put it on Twitter, and it went close to viral.

While I was sitting there not understanding a fucking word, but aware that the audience were lapping it up, with their knowing laughter and their serious, involuntary “hmmms” at various cogent points raised by messrs Nippert and Ng, the thought occurred that here were two journalists from the Auckland newsroom of the Herald come to share the word of how data journalism works to a Wellington audience in a Fairfax town. True, both were from Wellington, and had worked at Salient together; but still, it struck me as curious that these transplanted Aucklanders were onstage, and not some data monkey employed by Fairfax. All was revealed by Ng. He explained that he told the Herald to poach perhaps the most advanced data journalist in New Zealand, Harkanwal Singh, from the Waikato Times. “So when they did that,” he said, “it put Fairfax back five years. They had invested everything into this one guy. Without him, they literally had nothing.”

Nipper’s suit, and Nippert inside it, reappeared at another session, devoted to student magazine Salient. But Nippert’s suit, and Nippert inside it, played second fiddle to the star of the session, indeed the best, funniest, liveliest speaker I saw at the 2018 New Zealand Festival writers and readers programme – Roger Steele, editor of Salient in 1973-75. “It was part of the revolution,” he explained, and drew on rich, detailed memories of Salient as it aided and abetted revolutionary practises designed to overthrow the state and liberate the people. It was thrilling, sincere, inspiring. Steele is a respected publisher these days. He ought to publish himself. I’d buy his memoir.

But the Salient session was otherwise a shambles. Simon Wilson was due to chair it, but Simon Wilson is unwell; and so up stepped Mark Cubey, who made a mockery of his pedantic, verbose six-page email to festival chairs advising them how best to chair an event (do not say “ladies and gentlemen”, do not wear bracelets or leather pants). Cubey is an inspired programmer, I applaud his choices, but man he’s a terrible chair. He made long, incoherent speeches, which eventually arrived at something resembling a question. A chair has to direct traffic, keep things going, but the Salient session got clogged up and ran way, way over time.

I chaired two events and both ran to the hour, not a second more or less, ja. One was with CK Stead, who told wonderful stories about Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame, and Allen Curnow, and the other was with Herald journalist Kelly Dennett, author of The Short Life and Mysterious Death of Jane Furlong. I asked her whether she’d dreamed of Furlong, who was killed in 1993, and she reluctantly admitted yes, twice, both times of her being murdered… As well, Wellington photographer Peter Black and I shared the stage to talk about our 2016 masterpiece The Shops. At question time, someone from Australia shared the opinion that it was an “indulgent” book. I gave this a great deal of thought, perhaps a millionth of a second, and said: “That’s a stupid remark. Next question, please.” You can’t put up with shit like that at literary festivals. I advocate a ban on random and weird Australians.

There were events I wish I’d seen – the one about editing with Ashleigh Young and Jane Parkin, the one with philosopher AC Grayling chaired by former cabinet minister Chris Finlayson, the one where Moana Maniapoto chaired historian Vincent O’Malley. Just looking at that list rather suggests that the 2018 New Zealand Festival writers and readers programme was, in fact, a rich event which allowed for conventional literary practice. Editing, philosophy, history…. It wasn’t all Nazi mutants and that. But it was without the stink of distant, elevated literature which often seems to clog the lobbies and staircases of the Auckland Writers Festival; it was a blast of that constant element of Wellington life, fresh air, something new, something risky and open and strange, something inspiring.


The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.

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