Friday, June 20, 2014

On the Road - the funny little incidentals

Carnac - Brittany, France
Since heading back to France with my lovely daughter Rose after participating in the AusNZ Literary Festival, we’ve been logging up many hundreds of kilometres in the car (thanks to Brian’s heroic driving marathons!) as we visit sites relevant to my research. We’ve seen many extraordinary sights, from legions of standing stones at Carnac (in Brittany) to the magnificence of Chartres Cathedral’s exquisite stained glass windows, and the glorious châteaus of the Loire Valley. Castles, churches, abbeys, medieval towns and horizon-defying fields of wheat and barley . . . there has almost been an overload of beauty and jaw-dropping ‘wow’ moments, both exhilarating and exhausting.

I don’t think I truly appreciated the size of the country – how plotting a proposed itinerary on a map bears no relationship to the huge distances we’ve had to cross to visit the places I needed to etch into my mind’s eye if I have any hope of bringing Héloise story to life.

But, despite the tiredness and the odd scratchy outburst, it’s been a rich and productive time, with the shape and scope of the book starting to reveal itself to me, plus the voice and tone now cemented into a first paragraph that will guide me forwards when I finally sit down to the writing (probably next year, given the vast amount of research I still have left to tackle.)

Rather than go through each beautiful place and drown you in dozens of photographs, this time I’d like to just share with you a few random and unexpected moments that stay with me as we near ‘home.’

1: In the beautiful medieval town of Bernay, upon finding the 12th century church I had hoped to visit all locked up, I requested of the lady at the next door museum reception if there was any chance of being allowed to have a look inside (with the aid of mime, doe-eyed pleading and Google Translate!)

To my surprise and delight she promptly produced a giant key and led us outside and over to the huge locked doors. Inside, the church has been stripped right back to its bare bones, so that the beautiful skeleton of it is revealed. The gorgeous vaulted ceilings and strong supporting pillars create their own sense of grandeur, with no decoration required to cause the heart to sing.

In fact, after seeing more churches in the last ten days than most people will see in their entire lifetime, I can honestly say this is the one that has moved me the most. Its starkness allowed the beauty of the architecture to shine through, celebrating the wonderful creativity and skill of the people who had the vision to create such a remarkable structure nearly one thousand years ago! One thousand years! Gobsmacking.

Phil the French Farmer!
Mandy the Swinger!
2. We had the great pleasure of being hosted for three days by the lovely NZ writer Phillip Mann in his home-away-from-home in Choussy, right in the centre of the Loire Valley. It was a very welcome respite from the soullessness of cheap hotels and the interminable driving. Phil took us to a restaurant known only to those who live nearby, the set menu prepared by a local woman now well into her eighties. The place was packed with locals, including workmen in the area, all delighting in indescribably delicious course after course of slow cooked magic, accompanied by a bottomless jug of local wine with liqueurs to finish. Two hours later we staggered back to Phil’s house, stuffed to the gills (and more than a little tipsy), past fields either golden with ripe wheat or bursting with seedling sunflowers. I made straight for the hammock under a large chestnut tree and promptly fell straight to sleep! No further food (or drink) was necessary that day!

As evening slowly tiptoed in (it doesn’t grow dark there until at least 10.30pm) we watched a brave band of tiny house-martins, whose nests adorn the rafters of the old barn, dive bomb an approaching cat until it finally gave up and slunk away, thanks to their epic Lilliputian battle against this dangerous feral foe. A good analogy to remember when we feel powerless against the corporate machine or bloody right-wing governments, perhaps?

3. Speaking of corporate machines and powerlessness, we’ve been confronted several times by the presence of huge stacks from nuclear power stations, rising out of the gorgeous countryside and spewing forth steam like chimneys venting straight from Hell. Every time we came close I felt myself tense up. 

In discussion with a French couple at the B&B where we were staying at the time of the first sighting, they disclosed that these plants caused them no particular concern. In fact they were quite proud, declaring that these were the safest and most up-to-date nuclear facilities in Europe, and that less than 5% of people there had any issue with them. Perhaps this is true, but it certainly didn’t stop my skin crawling each time I spotted one, and I found it particularly ironic, given the pristine nature of the surrounding farms, which appear much more organic, healthy and sensibly stocked than our own environmentally unfriendly farming practices. 

Two more quick anecdotes:

4. Crawling down the motorway, cars lined up three lanes deep as the result of an accident up ahead. The inside lane was duly closed, so we were further bunched up into the remaining two. Further along, past the first markers to keep us out of the lane had dwindled to none (and despite the fact that we were clearly still to leave that particular lane empty) impatient drivers started disregarding this fact and speeding along this empty outer lane. Two cars ahead of us the driver of a white van clearly took exception to this situation and pulled out into said lane. He then proceeded to slow right down, so that nothing could get past him, and no one was going to go any faster than the two other crawling lanes these drivers were so blatantly trying to beat! The guy in the car behind started having a high blood pressure attack, his poor wife clearly getting an earful as he railed and cursed at the self appointed traffic control van for the next twenty minutes, until this second lane was reduced down to one and they both had to merge. Mr White Van was duly let in with ease, all of us silently cheering his wonderful gesture, while Mr Pushy had to barge his way in as each of us, I’m sure, was muttering ‘I’m not letting that bastard in!’

Later, once the traffic was flowing freely again, we passed Mr White Van and applauded him out the window, followed by a cheery thumbs-up. His smile was a treasure to behold!

Last one . . .

5. In a gorgeous little medieval village (a world heritage site) called Provins, we spent a day at a medieval festival. I had hoped it would help me recreate with some authenticity the smells, sights, colours, and feel of medieval life. No such luck! Instead, it was like walking into the dress-up day at sci-fi convention Armageddon or a Lord of the Rings tribute day. What struck me was how easily it could have been NZ; how the same types of people (same faces, hair-dos, body piercings, tattoos, body-types, proclivities) are replicated across the world. It was just as well Saint Peter Jackson wasn’t there (or his mates at Warner Bros.) He’d no doubt have sued them all for breach of copyright.
But, hey, people were happy. Nerds and nerdettes strolled hand in hand, knights sweltered in their shiny armour, much beer was drunk and many little piggies were slaughtered for the greater good. . . So, why let research get in the way of good day? It’s nice to see people genuinely enjoying themselves and throwing off convention. Not giving a damn. You’ve gotta love the creative spirit that allows grown men and women to pin on elf ears and lace themselves into a leather bodice for a spot of fun. If I’d had more warning I reckon I’d have given it a go. What the hell? When in Provins . . .

Monday, June 2, 2014

Journey to the edge of the world: talking about the Australia/NZ Festival of Literature and Arts.

King's College Chapel

I’ve had an interesting and stimulating few days, flying over to London to take part in the Aus/NZ Festival of Literature and Arts at Kings College— and feel incredibly grateful to have been included in such an amazing event. I was involved in two panel discussions on the last day, leaving me free to dip into the rich assortment of sessions on offer for the two days prior to this.

The festival began with an evening session on the Thursday night 
– a karanga and haka performed in
Bruce Pascoe
all its loud and threatening splendour by two men and a woman, followed by a quiet and intensely moving Aboriginal welcome from writer Bruce Pascoe. The two cultures could not have been more sharply contrasted – and it really brought home to me:

  •  how little I (and I have no doubt many of us) know about the true nature of Australia’s first people and their ancient culture (I’ve only ever seen one other ‘welcome to country’ before) ;
  •  given the quiet, peaceful nature of the culture, how that probably further enabled the horrendous violence and oppression brought to bear upon them by their colonisers.
Tim Winton

I’ll write a bit more on Bruce and this subject in a minute. But next, to my great excitement (forgive short groupie moment!) Tim Winton then spent an hour in discussion with Australian Kirsty Lang. His long greying hair tied back in a pony tail, wearing a polar fleece and jeans, he proceeded to charm everyone with his humility and lyrical (yet down to earth) approach to both writing and life. There is a quiet politicism there around environmental issues, bound in a deep love for the land and the people who live there. He’s the kind of guy you’d like to spend time chewing the fat with, toes scuffing the tide as you strolled together down an otherwise deserted beach at sunset. And you know you’d come out richer for the experience; that, just as he weaves his slow, lush, and emotionally complex stories, he’d leave you with a sense you’d been steeped in some kind of fundamental truth about what really matters in life, and would never see the world in the same way again.

Friday’s fare brought a whole new smorgasbord of treats. First up, a robust discussion about the state of the publishing industry in Australia and NZ. No surprises here – a kind of jaw clenched optimism about how the e-book and self-publishing wave won’t affect traditional publishers. Yet, given the statistics coming out about the disparity in potential incomes between traditionally published authors and those who blaze their own trails ( ) and who, ultimately make more and have more control, it’s hard not to wonder if traditional publishers go home at night and shake in their boots at the very real possibility that their authors and potential authors will back away, willing to forgo literary respectability in exchange for a bit of money (for a change)!

Next was a lovely session featuring our own Stephanie Johnson and Kate Forsyth, a bewitchingly charismatic woman who wove a spell over the audience as she told the story behind her book The Wild Girl, which focusses on the true tale of a girl who gifted some of the original stories to the Brothers’ Grimm. It sounds wonderful – is definitely on my ‘must read’ list. Stephanie very much held her own as well, with all her usual dry wit and wry smile. A most enjoyable hour.

The afternoon brought a fascinating session about the ‘Perils of Biography’, with author/journalists Andrew Fowler and Robert Wainwright.  Of particular interest to me was Andrew Fowler’s discussion about the process of writing his autobiography of Julian Assange. As I’ve recently met Julian in person (a most bizarre experience at the Ecuadorian Embassy that’s best left untold in public!), it was fascinating to hear Andrew’s ‘take’ on him. He says he has seen the evidence about the Swedish rape charges and believes Julian is innocent. What interested me most was the revelation that he had organised for Julian to appear at the festival via a live link until our own NZ High Commissioner not only insisted they pull the plug, but threatened to rumble the whole festival if they did not comply. Now what the hell is that about? Are they scared of what he may reveal about our high and mighty in the offices of power?

The last session for the day brings me back to Bruce Pascoe, who appeared with two other wonderful indigenous Australians: Anita Heiss and poet Ali Cobby Eckermann. These three were spectacular! Bruce, in his quiet and understated manner, blew apart the colonial lies about Aboriginal people being primitive hunter gatherers. He read verified historical accounts of first sightings of the locals, who were involved in intensive agriculture and living in highly organised societies.  Peaceful societies, free of tribal warfare and totally in tune with their environment. That the first settlers not only hunted down and destroyed these people, but then propagated the dehumanising myths about them (as so primitive their culture did not deserve preserving) is nothing short of criminal. And, that these myths are still repeated today is downright disgusting and disgraceful. 
Anita Heiss

To follow his calmly voiced revelations, Dr Anita Heiss (academic, author, activist) spoke with great clarity and passion. She had the guts to take a journalist to court who had deeply insulted her (and all other Aboriginal people) via snide remarks inferring that her mixed heritage was questionable and that she (and others) used the claim of being indigenous to access hand-outs and support she wasn’t entitled to. To the great credit of the Australian legal system they accepted the case and she won! Total respect. She is the kind of smart, highly educated and articulate young woman that warms my heart. What is sad is that I hear similarly articulated accusations against mixed-blood Māori at home. As an aside, in truly cynical fashion, this particular event was sponsored by RioTinto – the very same multinational corporation who is destroying vast tracts of land in Australia and around the world! Green washing, of course. Just total bullshit — and I hope that in the future the organisers take a more ethical stance to who they take money from. Yes, I know it’s hard to get any money for the arts – but you can bet your family jewels that RioTinto weren’t doing this out of altruism or any sense of dedication to the arts. It would’ve been a cynical PR move to try and hide the fact they’re screwing us all – made even more ironic as Anita read out a piece from one of her books about how mining was destroying the particular setting of her story while sitting under a banner with their company logo! When someone finally pointed it out to her she was horrified.

Finally, as if singing the emotional finale to this historical, political and academic opera, Ali Cobby Eckerman read us a couple of her poems, after talking a little of her experience as one of the Stolen. Her child, too, was taken from her. The kind of sick logic that perpetrated these crimes sickens and bewilders me. Suffice to say that there were tears. Many tears. Many of them mine. 

Saturday began with a wonderful session about Janet Frame, with Margaret Drabble, Linda Grant and Stephanie Johnson. The overarching theme that came out of the conversation was this: that Janet was a genius – and that it was really sad her early mental health issues have come to be the thing that defines her when, really, it was a small glitch in an otherwise brave and unique life. And it made me want to go back and read her again, just to revel her genius all over again.

Clive James
At high noon Clive James slowly ambled onto the stage of a packed lecture theatre. It is clear he is in the final stages of a terminal illness – and with his usual dry languid wit he cheerfully warned those in the front row he could topple over and die at their feet at any moment. For an hour he led us on one of his droll and erudite rambles, covering topics as diverse (and diametrically opposed, in terms of deserving of admiration and respect!) as Dante to Tony Abbott. It was a very poignant hour – with a heartfelt standing ovation for him at the end — and a generous gift to us all: by the end of it (and the long queues afterwards at the book signing) he must have been exhausted. I felt extremely lucky to have been there.

The afternoon brought a fascinating session on LGBTQ fiction for young adults and another on writing about autism with Lisa Nops and the very confident and witty Kathy Lette. The day ended with a hilarious session chaired by Stella Duffy, with fellow crime writers Helen Fitzgerald and Val McDermid. The word 'fuck’ was bandied about within the first minute, and sprinkled liberally through from that point forwards! It was a rollicking, engaging and highly entertaining hour.

I then rushed off to the Aldwych Theatre, where I had managed to buy cheap but excellent seats to see an adaptation of Hillary Mantel’s ‘Bring Up The Bodies’. Immaculately performed, with impeccably choreographed staging, though three hours long it had me absolutely in its thrall. A wonderful night! Here’s a link to one review of it – totally agree!   Bring Home The Bodies
On the final day of the festival I had the pleasure of listening to Fay Weldon for an hour as she chatted about her early life with Paula Morris, and then meeting her and joining her on a panel about women’s fiction. Though now quite elderly and a little slow in her movements, her brain and her wit
Fay Weldon with you-know-who
are just as sharp as ever. And when she smiles you can see the wicked shine of her eyes – I loved her (and felt incredibly honoured to be sitting next to her.) The panel discussion itself fell a bit flat, I thought, with the mix of panellists not quite gelling and a bit of a stretched premise to struggle with. But my pleasure at meeting her over-rode anything else.

Another panel discussion, with our own Anna McKenzie shining amongst the line-up, suffered a similar fate – the topic of ‘Teens vs the land’ not really giving the poor writers enough scope to get their teeth into. But they still did very well, and there was a pleasingly decent crowd!

Joe Dulcie
I rushed from my session with Fay to the last of the day for me – a panel discussion with Bruce Pascoe, Nicole Hayes and Joe Ducie, chaired very ably by Shannon Cullen. The fact that Shannon had facilitated a get-together for us all on the opening night, and gave us good advance warning of the questions she would ask, meant that the discussion flowed well and it felt like a good hour, well spent. I was really impressed by all three writers – and excited to discover new books to put on my ever expanding must-read list!

Nicole Hayes
The final event of the day was billed “The Big Debate: The cultural cringe is over.” It was supposed to be a bit of fun – a jokey way to end the festival – with panellists who included the ever witty Steve Braunias and comedian Jared Christmas. It started out funny enough (the speakers claiming the cultural cringe was over – except for Steve, who totally took the piss!) but for some strange reason they then opened up to the floor to rebut this proposition – and it fast turned into a serious naval gazing, ‘why don’t they realise how cool we are?’, ‘how come we’re not noticed?’ kind of …. well, cringey, really. I was tired. I was perplexed. And I was a little gobsmacked that no one could see the irony – that if we are still talking about this stuff then, clearly, folks, we haven’t got yet over it. Yes, okay, I said something. However I put it (and I truly can’t remember now – shame has blurred the facts) it must have come out pretty badly, as people groaned. Yes, groaned! And a nuclear explosion went off inside me and glowed through my skin as I realised they didn’t get the irony at all, and thought I was saying something quite different.  I snuck away and licked my wounds. Said three million times ‘I must not voluntarily speak in public when I'm tired; I must not voluntarily speak in public when I'm tired; I must not….’ You get the picture. 

So, my friends, from great highs to humiliating lows. But I take my hat off to the vast band of people who organised it, attended it, gave their time, and supported it. Overall I felt incredibly proud to be a kiwi – and to have been part of something that I hope will be the first of many more to come. AusNZ festival – you did us proud.