Sam Duckor-Jones at Hunters & Collectors (Photo: Vanessa Rushton)

The ghost of Charles Bukowski in Wellington: a report from LitCrawl 2018

Spinoff Review of Books literary editor Steve Braunias does his best to remember a drunken weekend in Wellington at 2018 LitCrawl.

Crazy to feel the need to rush to a literary event – there’s always plenty of room, it doesn’t matter if you’re a tad late – so I leisurely ironed my shirt in my hotel room, brushed my shoes and teeth, and rehearsed a dozen different faces to greet the world before stepping out onto Cuba St in Wellington on Saturday at 6:03pm to attend a 6pm live poetry session at LitCrawl 2018. I walked down the street to the venue. About 20 people were standing outside Hunters & Collectors and trying to see inside. They couldn’t see anything; they couldn’t see over the heads of the people who crowded the doorway. They couldn’t hear anything; they were prevented by the distance and also the traffic on Cuba St. One by one they left and I got closer to the door. I couldn’t see or hear the poets who were performing but I could see the place was packed wall to wall and to the rafters – people upstairs had to draw in their neck to avoid cracking their head on the ceiling. O literature in public places! O LitCrawl, that annual miracle of staging, which programmes one event after another, and indeed eight at the same time for hours on end. Only in Wellington; only a fool would risk missing out because they felt the need to iron their shirt.

Thomas Sutherland at Slow Boat Records, for the Pamerston North vs Lower Hutt literary shoot-out (Palmy won) (Photo: Vanessa Rushton)

It was LitCrawl’s fifth birthday in the weekend. It attracted about 2600 people on Saturday night. There were 153 programmed writers, from Cork, Berlin, Canberra, New York, London, even Hamilton. No one missed their flights and no one lost their cool although it certainly appeared one swaying literary figure was escorted from the premises at the after party. The drunken fool! But I was led astray earlier in the evening by Ashleigh Young.

I didn’t stay long outside the Hunters & Collectors poetry event; inside, an A-team of New Zealand literature stood in rapt attention, Lloyd Jones and Rachael King upstairs, Emily Perkins downstairs. When the brilliant Hamilton poet essa may ranapiri wriggled through the audience in a floral dress and left, I thought: where essa goes, I go, so I followed them around the corner to the Bartley + Company Art gallery on Ghuznee Street, where there was at least room to stand at the back for another LitCrawl event. It featured poets and story-tellers whose work has appeared in the online site Starling, which exists to publish writers under the age of 25. essa was there, performing alongside Rebecca Hawkes, exchanging lines in a kind of Nick Cave-Kylie Minogue or Lady Gaga-Bradley Cooper duet. It was pretty great. But the writer whose reading knocked me out the most was Isabelle McNeur, who read from a YA novel in progress with the working title of Fistfight – it’s about schoolgirls who form a fightclub. She said, “It’s not the kind of thing girls are encouraged to think about.” The chapter she read out was powerful, involving, skilfully crafted. It’s a hit book in the making.

I was mingling afterwards and trying out some of my different faces when I ran into Ashleigh Young. I said, brilliantly, “How are you?” The author of Can You Tolerate This?, her book of essays which has won major awards, is published in the US and Britain, and widely celebrated for its graceful, searching intellect and lyrical sensibility, said: “Thirsty.”

Doireann Ni Ghriofa with Vana Manasiadis at Te Auaha (Photo: Vanessa Rushton)

Her word worked like a dark spell. Instantly, immediately, achingly, I felt a thirst like I’d never previously experienced, and  seconds later we were at a bar armed with two golden ales. We talked about old times. We had seen each other a couple of months ago. We were both in Dunedin for Shayne Carter – Ashleigh to talk with him about editing his memoir for Victoria University Press, me to learn to drive under his expert tutoring. Shayne kept me on the straight and narrow as I puttered through the streets of Dunedin, Aramoana, Mosgiel; but in Wellington, Ashleigh led me astray, and LitCrawl became PubCrawl.

We drank deep. We drank long. We stuck to beer, and it was to our ultimate undoing; it was neither the quality nor the variety that was at fault – it was the quantity. Grasp that and you have the very root of the matter. Dusk turned to dark, and midnight ticked over to morning. LitCrawl raged on around us, eight events at a time at 28 venues (bars, cafes, shops), flawlessly managed by a team of volunteers under the watchful eye of LitCrawl directors Andrew Laking and Claire Mabey, who ought to be begged to stage the next writers and readers programme at the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in Wellington. Begged! They know how to pour on the one thing in short supply at too many literary events – fun.

Nadia Reid with Nick Bollinger at Alistair’s Music (Photo: Vanessa Rushton)

Meanwhile, we drank deep…Dusk turned to dark; LitCrawl writers performing here and there included Tayi Tibble (named best dressed woman author at an after-party ceremony), Chris Tse (named best dressed male author), Sam Duckor-Jones, Paula Harris, Madeleine Chapman, Leah McFall, Pip Adam,  Naomi Arnold, Emma Neale, Doirreann Ni Ghriofa, Sarah Laing, Catherine Robertson, Lizzie Marvelly. Midnight ticked over to morning; here and there I ran into poets, broadcasters, novelists, the wonderful Emily Writes, and was friends to all, indeed best friends to all, although the exact details escape me. Text the next day, from Jesse Mulligan: “Thanks for the cuddle.” What? Text discovered the next day, but sent at 2:12am, from Ashleigh: “I just got out of karaoke!! Are you still out?? I’m in Willis St.” As it happens I was out – of my mind. By 1:30am or so I was fast asleep, unconscious, a drunken sailor sailing the turbulent seas of ruin.

Maria McMillan at Bicycle Junction (Photo: Vanessa Rushton)

But Ashleigh, too, had been led astray. An unseen hand guided the both of us to drink too much. Very early in the evening our talk turned to a writer whose name is seldom spoken anymore, whose reputation precedes him, who is viewed with universal dislike crossing the border to disgust, who the Spinoff would never publish for fear of causing offence, who might very well be the last author that anyone would associate with graceful, lyrical Ashleigh Young – the poet, memoirist, short story writer and self-styled “dirty old man” of American letters, Charles Bukowski. Bukowski! That old drunk! Jesus! Lecherous, appalling. Impossible to take seriously – impossible to read. And yet, and yet. I had been a huge fan once, Ashleigh also.

I said, “Really? What’ve you read?”

She said, “Everything. The novel – what’s it called? Post Shop.”

Post Office,” I said.

“Yes.”

“Have you read Notes of a Dirty Old Man?”

“I’ve read everything. Everything.”

His spirit ordered two more glasses of golden ale. Then two more, then two more…Bukowski! The worst person, but in some true, unforgiveable way, the best writer – the best at getting down to it, reporting from the bar and the floor of the bar and the cheap hotel and the racetrack, from the deep, dark well of human existence. The poet of loneliness, dread, despair, lust, regret, life’s lost bets. Bukowski! God it was good to talk about Bukowski, remember our enthusiasm, wonder about his lasting influence, the lesson of his genius. Only over alcohol; only at LitCrawl, always the coolest and most exciting event in the New Zealand literary calendar.


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