Going West Literary Festival (1999)

Vanessa York & Andrew Forsberg, ed.: pander OS 2.0

Going West Literary Festival: The Nation’s Narratives. Titirangi War Memorial Hall (September 12-13th, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)

– What was so bad about it?
– Where do I begin? Well, I mean, I was supposed to be covering the event for the magazine, but they all made a point of ignoring me, and walking away every time I went up and tried to talk to anyone!
– Poor baby
– Yeah, but I’ll get my revenge. Wait till they see what I say!
– Yeah?
– I thought of opening with something like: “I was determined to write a balanced, statesmanlike piece about the Going West Literary Festival; but then, halfway through, I thought: Fuck it. Why not tell it like it is?”
– Can you say that?
– Say what?
– Fuck.
– I don’t see why not. I’ve done it before. A savage journey into the heart of the Westie dream … Whatcha reckon?

  • Saturday, 12th September. 9.10 a.m.: Talk about mainstream. Murray Gray and his lieutenants bustle around officiously: “Don’t talk to me; I’ve got a nametag. I’m important.” About as much fun as church so far. Still, some interesting people will, it appears, be speaking. [More on the nametag issue later].

  • 9.30: Ian Wedde’s keynote address is quite thought-provoking, though (to my mind) not so much marred as curiously informed by the fact that he sees TV ads – Crumpy and Scotty, the Speights musterers – as the cutting edge of our culture.
    Peter Simpson on Ian Wedde: “You have such a capacity to irrigate our minds.” Chap behind me: “You mean piss on our brains?”

  • 10.15: Better than more of these fatuous “workshop discussions,” though. “Warts & All! Literary Biography,” “Pop Lyrics: Telling it the Way it is!” (that’s subtle). How about “Porno: Wet Dreams for Wankers” (Oh God, that’s there already as “Tales of Sex and Art”) or “Is the Author Dead? A discussion of the ‘new novel’”? Seriously, this sort of stuff is the intellectual equivalent of poems about foxgloves in English lanes, or my pawky Scots ma. Most of the participants look vaguely ashamed of themselves. At least they’re getting paid.
    [A nice aside by Dave Dobbyn about this “right-wing stinking Nazi government we have nowadays” in the pop music session. I ask him if he’s aware that the festival was opened by the National Party Minister of Culture, which seems to amuse him].

  • 1.30: In the panel on “Are all Romances Love Stories?” Rachel McAlpine confides to us, in motherly tones, that she’d been saying to Kim Hill, on the radio, just the other day, that they really should admit that “people like you and me” [as opposed to what? People with brains? good hair-dos?] like Mills & Boons romances too! ‘Nuff said, as smilin’ Stan Lee used to say in the Marvel comics.

  • 2.30: Up to now, I haven’t quite put my finger on what’s wrong here. In the Michael King session there’s the customary 30 seconds left for “interaction” with the audience, and someone is stroppy enough to ask a leading question about his relations with Maoridom. Much tutting and frowning from John Cranna in the chair, but King condescends to answer with a few generalisations about times changing and the necessity to move on. The question was a bit aggressive, but I’m distressed to see this closing of the ranks at the first sign of a challenge to the party line.
    There’s a confusion of signs and intentions here: “City of beans and cod / Where the writers speak only to nametags / and the nametags speak only to God.” People who’ve paid to hear their favourite writer speak should be allowed the opportunity to speak to them later, and the registration fee should include some kind of standard nametag. That’s democracy, I think. That’s the right way to do it, and the way I’ve seen it done at other venues. As it is, these silly nametags have become an implicit barometer of prestige.
    Why do my notes include the phrase: Next time I’ll bring a syringe … ?

  • 5.00: Lynda Chanwai Earle concludes her reading by saying: “I really enjoyed today.” That’s nice, Lynda. I didn’t. I bet I would have if I’d had a fucking nametag, though. When they open me up they’ll find the word embossed on my heart.

  • Sunday, 13th September: 8.45 a.m.: It says something for my sense of duty that I actually came back – just bloody-mindedness, perhaps. What fresh horrors of invention will this day show?
    [Vignette: early morning. Enter conference organiser, chasing a duck out of the hall foyer. It’s hard to say which of them looks more indignant.]

  • 9.10: The second day is dawning better. The hi-tech seems to be working for a change. A kind of impromptu morning tea is breaking out around us, but Murray Gray does not approve. Sit down, naughty people.
    The daring “revisionism” of rediscovering Ronald Hugh Morriesson reveals the implicit tendency of this affair. How many times can you rediscover someone? I mean, damn it, let’s rediscover some other little-known neglected artists like McCahon and Hotere at the same time.
    In his bit of this weirdly over-organised session, C. K. Stead tells an anecdote which is more revealing than he probably intends. He was at a literary congress sometime in the seventies, and was continually interrupted by a man in the audience who seemed to want to speak in praise of universities and how they discover and popularise neglected works of art. Stead did not then (or now) agree and, in any case, it seemed a bit irrelevant, so he shut him up.
    Later on he realised the man was Morriesson himself, trying in this rather devious way to express thanks for Stead’s own part in “rediscovering” his early novels. And the moral is? Well, you know my moral by now: if you ain’t got no nametag, you ain’t nobody.

  • 10.15: This is the real nub of the matter: Tainui Stevens and Professor “Jamie” Belich on The New Zealand Wars. The former is a very engaging speaker, and chatters on agreeably for quite a while. The latter sits with crossed arms and a frown, looking like some nineteenth-century man of destiny.
    When it comes to his turn to speak, Professor Belich announces that he will now answer his critics. “Ah ha,” think I, and mentally rub my hands together – “Now we’ll hear something interesting. He’ll explain a few points, and set the record straight at last.” Nope. They’re all cranks, it appears (his word). The only thing required is to “anthropologise” their reactionary views. One crank was actually rung up by a national newspaper for an opinion, which is shocking. Because if cranks are allowed equal space with professors of history, then society will fall apart. My mouth rather fell open at this, but the audience had been well trained by the rough justice meted out to impertinent questioners yesterday, so no-one demurred. Now, I ain’t no military historian, but some of the people who wrote in to question certain details of the TV series apparently were. Never mind. They’re all cranks.

There was, of course, more, much more – readings by this, that, and the other poet and novelist [did Kapka Kassabova really say: “to be the nipple of pleasure lipped by the panting dogs of summer,” or was that just a fever-dream?]. Michele Leggott announced that today was an A2 day (referring to the size of the piece of paper she was proposing to read from). C. K. Stead tried to get a fight going, but in a half-hearted sort of way (“Cynical, isn’t he?” said the woman in the seat behind me). There was a beleaguered tone about it all, somehow – nothing against [most of] the speakers involved, but I felt we were being asked to buy a package. Enterprise culture c.1987.
You’ll be glad to hear, though, that there was one thing I really liked in that soulless, uninspiring weekend. Someone asked Shonagh Koea how she managed to keep on writing, and whether she ever got discouraged. She replied, “Well, I sit down at my desk, and then I start crying.” Not racking sobs, she explained, but just drizzling, hopeless tears. Why? “Oh, from fear.” Fear, she went on to explain, that she wouldn’t be able to go on. That did appeal to me. Weeping from terror is so much closer to my experience of life than all the other sold-out business-as-usual bullshit the establishment’s trying to peddle these days. She had some good tips on how to get round your blocks, but it was mainly that image that got me. At the end of the day (literally, in this case) there’s something comforting about fear and sorrow.


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