Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Gone West

Halfway through preparing for our panel on the future of journalism I realised that, after dispensing with the introductions, I had only set out to ask leading questions. I tried to soften the effect somewhat. I needn’t have bothered: my three panelists were all experienced and headstrong enough to bend each eager invitation to the point they wanted to make. As well they should have.

But there is one pointed suggestion I regret not making. When I left the question of why journalism is good for democracy wide open, I was hoping to be told that it’s not only investigative journalism that matters, nor political reporting. Feature journalism matters to the democracy as well. So does art criticism. So do book reviews. Anything that holds a mirror to our social and cultural life. Anything that tells us facts about ourselves.

Book festivals, too.

I had never been to Going West before. Hell, I had barely been to West Auckland. The festival has existed for over two decades. I understand it used to take place on a train – hence the name – but nowadays it is hosted at the Memorial Hall in Titirangi. After the few days we spent in Point Chevalier three or four years ago, I’m reminded again that large chunks of Auckland are small and highly characterised little towns. I’m also reminded of what Melissa Lee said about the motorway keeping South Auckland criminals out of Mount Albert. I’m not used to suburbs being sealed off from one another, or be thought of in this way.

Before leaving Wellington, I look up on Google Maps the place I’m staying and a friend’s house. The distance is listed as 15 minutes by car and over two hours on foot. This is a city with a strange, elastic geography.

As he drives us into Titirangi, Mark Easterbrook, one of the festival’s two programme directors, warns us that it’s full of chickens, and urges us to visit the new art gallery, Te Uru. He’s right about the chickens: they are everywhere. He’s also right about the gallery, which is magnificent: both as a building – tall but somewhat shallow, with giant windows facing the harbour on one of its longer sides – and for the five exhibitions it housed when I visited. (You have until the end of the week to see Yukihiro Taguchi, while the John Parker retrospective lasts through until mid-November. Entry is free.)

But I was here for the book festival. Due to a tumultuous couple of weeks, and to the usual nerves which overtake me whenever I have to perform in public – for the second time this year, I’ve had to fill out a tax form using the hilariously implausible description of “entertainer” – I was only dimly aware of the programme, save for Barbara Brookes, Anthony Byrt, Damien Wilkins. So it was that on the first night, feeling jet lagged after an hour-long flight, I was treated in succession to a 20 minute poetry reading by Emma Neale, a lecture by Albert Wendt, and a full show by Michelle A’Court. All of that, in a small auditorium largely filled with ageing locals. Which is no slight: this is the typical audience for these events, and whatever assumptions you may want to make about their social extraction or their politics, it quickly transpired it was not a group of people that minded being challenged.

I am woefully ignorant of New Zealand literature. Of Wendt I can only honestly say that I knew who he was. Emma Neale was a complete discovery. A’Court was exceptionally entertaining. The low-key, village-like atmosphere didn’t clash with the calibre of the performers or the quality of their words. It infused them rather with their native, local dimension. This is Aotearoa: a country with small publics and little money, but great artists. A country that is remote but linked via intricate routes to an ancient, vast archipelago, a continent made almost entirely of water. (And how much easier it is to perceive this connection in Auckland.)

Increasingly, I find that this is my dimension, too. I am attracted by the small events filled with excellent people. One could say many things about how far the initial, easy familiarity that New Zealanders offer can be taken, but that lack of social distance at times like these is a simple, palpable reality. You can talk to most anyone, and if you can talk to people it means you can work with them. This, too, I’m growing more accustomed to.

Emma Neale was a discovery, but so was Serie Barford. Listening to Brookes talk about her History of New Zealand Women was a joy, as were Damien Wilkins’ excerpts from Dad Art. I had never seen anyone advocate more forcefully and clearly for a drastic change in our environmental policies – that is to say, in our economy – than Mike Joy. Anthony Byrt, as he did two weeks ago in Christchurch, came across as one of our sharpest thinkers not just on art but cultural criticism more generally, and I can’t wait to read his book. Then there were David Gellar, Marama Muru-Lanning, Sue Orr. And Paula Penfold, Sara Vui-Talitu and Simon Wilson, even if they didn’t say the things I was trying to get them to say but rather the ones they wanted to say.

It’s hard not feel invigorated and a little hopeful when you come away from these events. And fortunate that you could attend, and happy that they are so accessible for a relatively large number of people. There’s some cultural life-blood in this place yet.

The image at the top of the post is from the festival’s Instagram page.

The Wellington launch of our book (number five in the best-seller list!) is this Thursday from 5.30 to 7 pm at the Whitireia Journalism and Broadcasting School, 86 Vivian Street. Tess McClure will chair a panel with Cate Honoré Brett, Nicky Hager and Peter Griffin. The Facebook event is here.

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