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Wellington’s LitCrawl event is freaking awesome. Does Auckland have the brains to do it too?

Steve Braunias reports from the 2017 LitCrawl in Wellington –  and wonders whether it could be duplicated in Auckland.

Ashleigh Young (genius) couldn’t get in. Fergus Barrowman (publisher) couldn’t get in. Leah McFall, the Sunday columnist with a dedicated following – she couldn’t get in, either. And then word spread about someone else who was refused entry at one of the events staged at LitCrawl in Wellington this weekend. “Bill Manhire,” it was reported, breathlessly, “was turned away.”

Sir Bill! St Bill. O holy and kindly patron of all things literary in Wellington, the grand founding pooh-bah of the International Institute of Modern Letters caliphate, so venerated that he hasn’t had to die to have a building named after him (Bill Manhire House at Victoria University) – verily, not even he could gain entry to the packed-out, standing-room only, jammed to the gills event on Saturday night at an upstairs joint on the corner of Eva St and Dixon St in downtown Wellington.

I was speaking at the event. Surely this explains the crush, but no. It was held at a small café – Six Barrel Soda Co – and not many people could get in. You had to be quick, or be left out in the cold at the hottest ticket in town. Dr Paula Morris was also speaking, and it was chaired by Danyl McLauchlan. Our subject was book reviewing in this day and age. Popular subject! Actually, other sessions were sold-out, too; such is the appeal of LitCrawl, that singularly exciting annual literary festival which stages multiple sessions in bars, cafes, bookstores and other venues across town at the same time, held in three phases in a single evening. There were eight events at 6pm, another eight at 7.15pm and a final round of eight at 8.30pm. About 2500 people hoofed along in 2016; the numbers haven’t been toted up for 2017 yet, but it looks set to be over 3000.

The crowd goes mild at Bicycle Junction. Photo: Vanessa Rushton.

The chat about book reviewing was held at 6pm. Personally, I hated it. Paula and Danyl were fine but every time I opened my mouth I bored myself senseless and the crowd appeared to share the sentiment. Worse, it was held at a cafe that only served syrup drinks. Jesus wept!

When it finished, and I could get the fuck out of there, I headed around the corner to a session at 7:15pm in which several writers, including novelist Emily Perkins, read from their work. It was held in Arty Bee’s second-hand bookstore. It was absolutely packed. They closed the doors seconds just after I got in. I stood at the very back in the last two centimetres of space available.

Afterwards, I walked up Cuba St to Slowboat Records at 8:30pm, for a session dedicated to the virtues of Hamilton. Again, packed. Hamilton! Popular subject! I heard numerous reports of other events that were either sold-out, or close to it, such as the chat show hosted by Toby Manhire, and the readings from contributors to the latest Mimicry journal.

WTF! No one in this photograph is over 40. Photo: Vanessa Rushton.

In short, LitCrawl 2017 went off. Again. It was established in 2014 by Claire Mabey and Andrew Laking of production company Pirate & Queen. They know what they’re doing. They always draw up a startlingly original programme; they lock in sponsors, ranging from Creative New Zealand to The Lion Foundation to the Garage Project; they like writers, and writers like and trust them. The thing about LitCrawl that really works is that it’s fun, and it draws the youngest punters to any literary festival in the country.

Could LitCrawl come to Auckland? Would it work? The first question is: where? In Wellington, it was sprinkled around 38 venues, in a fairly tight downtown radius which included Cuba St, Manners St and Courtenay Place. In other words it took advantage of the natural environment: Wellington, the city with a contained and distinct downtown precinct. Auckland is all over the map. But, actually, there are a lot of potential venues along High Street and Lorne Street, which intersect the funky little strips of Vulcan Lane and Durham St East, which lead into good old Queen St, which takes you either up the hill to K Rd (true, a bit of a trot) or towards the water to Britomart….This is a zone which includes Auckland Public Library and the Auckland Art Gallery, and Unity Books and Jason Books and Rare Books, to name five more or less guaranteed starters.

Louise Wallace reads to children. Photo: Vanessa Rushton.

That could work, couldn’t it? But then: who would come? Is Auckland as smart and brainy and bookish as Wellington? Could it sustain LitCrawl? The other centres are immediately problematic. Dunedin is probably too small. Christchurch doesn’t yet have the floor space. The last recorded sighting of anyone reading a book in Hamilton was 1937. Auckland has the numbers – or does it? Are there enough people in Auckland who can read, and who would have the enthusiasm to support the liveliest literary event in New Zealand?

We asked Claire Mabey to comment. She said:

“Wellington makes LitCrawl. It wouldn’t happen without the relationship between the independent businesses who let us do weird things in their shops after hours. And it wouldn’t happen without Wellington’s specially high concentration of talented writers, indie publishers and interested people. So in many ways I think that LitCrawl Wellington here is a product of those things coming together in a city that’s made for it.

“In Auckland, the Auckland Writers Festival did a project called Walk On High in 2017. It was a similar concept: interesting formats in independent businesses along High Street. It was short and sharp and concentrated and even included a choir who sung book related songs as the audiences flowed in and out of Eight Thirty coffee. The whole thing worked beautifully with writers enjoying the chance to do something different with the performance of their work, and audiences enjoying the novelty and discovery aspects of it.

“I think that these kinds of new format events have to adapt to the place they’re being created in. Wellington suits the way we’ve done our crawl because Wellington shaped it. And Auckland suits the Walk on High concept because it was shaped by High Street and the writers and ideas that are living in that city. Auckland is also so much bigger than Wellington and geographically much more challenging. So I think Walk on High was very clever in picking a central spot and concentrating on that place and responding to it.

“The Wellington LitCrawl was bigger this year so that more people could fit in across the sessions. And because of the crazy weekend that we had with soccer and Lorde and Marlon Williams and all sorts of events that happen here all the time, the energy in the city was so high and such a boost. We had Peruvian soccer fans stumble into sessions and people who had no idea what it was that they’d walked into. That’s bloody brilliant and what we set out to do – make this thing accessible and fun.

“But it’s really Wellington that enables it – I think that people who live here embrace and are energised by the arts and by new ways to get their fix from it. And I think visitors to Wellington see and feel that very quickly. We had a lot of out of town visitors this year –  Northern Ireland, Aussies, Taranakians, South Islanders, Hamiltonians, Aucklanders, Palmy North… I’m pretty sure they’re all thinking that Wellington is a cool place.”

Basically what she said in response to the query about whether Auckland could host a LitCrawl was: no, probably not.


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