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BooksSeptember 18, 2018

A literary feud to end all literary feuds: the Going West books festival


Spinoff Review of Books literary editor Steve Braunias reports from the weekend’s Going West literary festival in Titirangi. With bonus podcast!

Dear old Going West! It’s the neighbourly writers festival. It’s the one in the gentle wops of Titirangi, in a memorial hall, rows of hard seats just like at school assembly, miles from anywhere – well, a steep walk up the hill, if you can be bothered, leads to chichi Titirangi village, with its espresso slop and its gluten-free pastries. But who has the legs? Everyone just contentedly stays put, in the dark hall, surrounded by dark bush. The highlight at Going West is always afternoon tea. They do a mighty fine spread. Pikelets! Sandwiches. Paua fritters! Howdy neighbour, don’t mind if I do.

And so the vibe at the 2018 Going West festival, held this Saturday and Sunday, was laid-back as per, relaxed, smiley. Everyone either knew each other or had got to know each other. At other festivals, people pick and choose which session they wish to attend, and leave as they please; at Titirangi, most of the audience book the whole day, nay, the whole weekend. They’re in it for the long haul. They compare notes on the sessions; they compare medical histories. On site the whole time: a St John’s ambulance. You can never have enough defibrillators at Going West, average age 94.

Paula Morris gave the keynote speech at the opening night bash on Friday. Everyone was still talking about it when I swanned in on Saturday afternoon. I hadn’t even got as far as the door when someone came up and started raving about Paula’s wonderfulness. Oh, they said, she was hilarious. And, they added, so very wise, too.

The memorial hall is next to a carpark. It’s not a very scenic carpark. There are two benches outside the hall which afford excellent views of the carpark. The only other place to sit is inside, and I made a beeline for the Green Room. The Green Room was really a Green Closet. It had enough room for a kettle, a couch, and a filing cabinet. Frustratingly, every drawer of the cabinet was firmly locked. I made a cup of tea for myself and Nikki Harre, author of The Infinity Game. When I showed her the milk, she reached out and took the carton. I said, “What’d you do that for? I was just seeing if you wanted milk in your tea.” She was puzzled, too, and said, “What did I think I was going to do with a carton of milk?” We may never know.

Auckland University Press publisher Sam Elworthy was there. Fiona Kidman was there; we discovered we had a close mutual friend in common – the late Bill Payne, an ex-con who wrote one great book of short stories, Poor Behaviour, under the influence of his hero Charles Bukowski. Rajorshi Chakraborti was there. The Wellington novelist looked unbelievably cool in his wide-collared floral shirt, and an electrifying jacket, which he said was tailored in Calcutta. I never thought I’d see the day when a male writer in New Zealand dressed better than Chris Tse but Raj was living, shimmering proof. Chris Tse was there. He looked okay.

The Spinoff was there, in force. I came in on the 171 bus from New Lynn with the brilliant playwright and Spinoff TV editor Sam Brooks. Madeleine Chapman arrived on foot: she ran 16km from Mt Eden to Titirangi. Jesus! Toby Manhire arrived looking as decadent as Keith Richards c1972, ie that elegantly wasted Exile on Main Street vibe. Satanic! Toby and Madeleine were on a panel chaired by Russell Brown. I wanted to see that very much but I had other commitments: I was at Going West to chair a session with Karl Stead and his daughter Charlotte Grimshaw.

Braunias, Grimshaw, Stead (Image: Liz March)

Our hour together was… interesting, sometimes tense. Charlotte’s latest novel Mazarine is told by a woman writer who is the only one in her family who thinks the family are seriously dysfunctional. Earlier this year, Charlotte reviewed The Wish Child by Catherine Chidgey, in Landfall; it included a breathtaking sentence, and when I say breathtaking I mean that it has the effect of causing everybody who reads it to suck in their breath. She wrote, “Just parting the curtains now: I grew up in a family home so stressful that I emerged from it chaotic.” I read this out loud onstage at Going West. The audience sucked in its breath.

And so I asked her about family life, and being the daughter of Karl Stead, all that, and she said: “Well – it’s complicated.” I said, “What’s all this about chaos?” And Karl said, “She was the chaos.” But then he said how much he adored Charlotte and her work, and I asked him to conclude the session by reading out a love poem for his wife, Charlotte’s mother, Kay, from his new collection, That Derrida Whom I Derided Died. It’s set on Takapuna Beach before they had kids:

There was a moon on the sea

right out to Rangitoto.


You were beautiful, and I

sang, as I could in those days

all the way home – like a bird.


“All families,” I said, primly, “are love stories.”

On the way out, someone came up to me and said did I see Paula Morris on opening night, she was so wonderful and hilarious! The following day, the sessions featured thinkers and writers such as Simon Wilson, Peter Wells, Stephanie Johnson, and Helen Heath; and Tōku reo, tōku ohooho | My Language, My Awakening, a session starring Stacey and Scotty Morrison. We take great pleasure in sharing the podcast of their korero. It’s almost like being there, in that sunlit grove in Titirangi, among the ferns and the pikelets.

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

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