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Books: Essay – In Which Jarrod Gilbert Attempts to Drink the Whanganui Literary Festival Dry

Patched author Jarrod Gilbert reports from the Whanganui Literary Festival held on the weekend.

Rachael King and I had a drink at Christchurch airport and had another when we arrived at the Whanganui Writers Festival. In 2013, Whiti Ihimaera called it the best regional writers festival around. I drank to that too.

Nicky Hager kicked things off in the unassuming but compelling way that he does. I rewrote my presentation when I got home in light of some things Nicky said. I woke and rewrote it again sober.

As I did this, my bare feet padded around the Rutland Hotel. I was trying to memorise what I was going to say while looking to avoid those writers whose sessions I had missed.

Rachael said they were were terrific and the audiences large. She gave particular note to Charlotte Grimshaw.

All the while I asked around: How long is the drive to Jerusalem? I had made a trip to the place made famous by James K Baxter and his disciples when I was about 20. I wanted to get back there and have a look around. I asked the two women at the Information Bureau for a map. I was told the flooding had done terrible things to the winding road up the river. Even the locals don’t like driving it. It’s not safe, you shouldn’t go, they said. But I had a go-anywhere car. By that I mean a rental. I asked for the map again.

On stage at the Concert Chamber in the war memorial centre – a part of the very cool arts district centred in Queen’s Park – I talked about gang statistics and dirty politics, I spoke of murder and made a plea around violence toward children. It’s hard not to choke up describing the scarcely imaginable horror of Coral Burrows’ last moments. I finished by answering a question about the guilt or otherwise of David Bain. Immediately isolating half the audience, I ducked for cover.

The evening was a dinner with the paying public. They made us move from table to table. Some maniac had bet the bank that was a good idea. I bought a bottle of wine at each table in case I needed to apologise for anything. When we had a photo of all of the writers a lady ran from a table to tell me I was the only one holding a drink. She said that might not be good for my reputation. Thank you, I said.

I turned to Nicky. My sway was in obvious contrast to his earnestness. I went for a cigarette and left his phone number on the table. As a man so famously private, nothing could have impressed him more.

A crime writer who literally fell at my feet signalled the end of the night. Showing better manners than balance, he apologised as he went down. No need to do that, I said, tugging at his armpits and insisting that he could at least put some effort in to getting back up. By the time he regained an upright position I had decided I could really like the bloke.

The next day started with Rachael’s question-and-answer session most ably chaired by a sharp and beautiful tattooed woman. She and her husband, a local cop, were both volunteer backbones of the event. When I say the day started, it was lunchtime. I was slow to get up. Rachael had barely finished stories about skinning tigers, and about hookers and her father when I headed for the car.

The road up the river was disturbed by rocks and trees. Whole hillsides were scarred by the recent rains. They looked as if they had been skinned. The drive was slow and lonely. Just two cars came in the other direction.

Through London and Athens I finally arrived in what is surely the strangest place in all of New Zealand. It was empty of people but full of history, steep at the sides and covered by tress and bush. The large church and Catholic convent stand as a prayer to old. The river, to one side, a constant companion. A sign on the door suggested I could enter the convent but it seemed like intruding. Somebody, unseen to me, closed a window. They were inside. I was outside. Neither expected the other.

I walked to the church and around the short paths that surrounds it. I used a toilet. For a second I thought about closing the door. There was a slight drizzle and some wind. Nothing else.

I got back up the car and drove up a steep driveway, covered by bush I had no idea where it went. As I drove up and started to turn around, a large Maori bloke, perhaps mid thirties, had come out of a house and peered down at me, his arms, hanging slightly too wide of his body to be a relaxed pose. I waved at him and his right arm twitched – undeniably the start of a wave back. He nearly forgot himself.

I continued turning the car around. I thought about jumping out for a yarn. That man had a story but I had a plane to catch.

On the drive back two kids on bikes went by. Both waved. One gave a gang signal. Goodbye, Whanganui.


Jarrod Gilbert’s book Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand is available for purchase at Unity Books

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