What a privilege to land in a wet and blustery Auckland on Friday, whisked in a Prius by Arvinder our Sikh cabbie to a rental car company called James Blond somewhere in Glen Eden, then on to the War Memorial Hall in Titirangi to scout the venue for our weekend at the Going West Festival of Books and Writers. We were a little early for action: Naomi McCleary the wonderful organiser was in the foyer to greet us and say there was nothing happening till 7pm with the powhiri.
So we got back into the wee red Yaris and motored off to find the Waitakere Estate along Scenic Drive in the bush, our B&B for the event. It took a bit of finding in the mist (later that night we got lost in the dark) but what luxury. We were able to freshen up, get changed for the evening, then sit down for a fine meal before leaving (the blue cod was truly excellent). Then off back down the twisting drive and a superbly laid goat track, back up to the snaking main road into town.
Once there, we found the speakers for the evening, Anne Kennedy and Robert Sullivan getting ready to deliver their addresse on the festival theme, a Curnow quote, “Small islands of meaning”. Both gave stimulating readings to get us underway and the excitement was definitely building in that historic hall, the one that has hosted all previous events. We would find out in the panel on state houses the next day that many of these war memorial halls were built all over the country after WW2. No more huge plinths for the dead, but community facilities for the living. In Greymouth, we had the war memorial swimming baths, now sadly destroyed.
The evening rocked on with a panel starring Graham Brazier and Harry Lyons of Hello Sailor interviewed ably by Finlay McDonald. What a set: rich chat, wonderful one-liners from Brazier, reflections by Harry and then the two of them would jump up and play.
This was a tone-setting panel for the relaxed and communal festival that followed. It never felt over the two days that you were anywhere else but amongst friends and book lovers. The after match supper was pretty impressive too: I can’t think of another such gathering in the country that feeds the punters as if we were all part of a Country Womens’ Institute meeting from the 1960s where all the women had brought home baking.
After a good sleep in a bed as wide as the Queen Mary and a breakfast looking out onto the wild and windswept Waitakere ranges, we sallied forth for a morning of meaty sessions (Crown Lynn pottery, State housing and social history, the Brasch journals and the Beaglehole letters, amongst some of the attractions). The Unity Books stall looking somewhat like a colonial fort with its doughty purveyors of delights on hand was there for our pleasure. I got Caro to order me a copy of Ian Wedde’s The Grass Catcher (sold out) and lo, by Sunday, it was there. Magic.
Post-afternoon tea, it was my turn to have a conversation with John Pule about his powerful epic poem, The Bond of Time. He ran the session by talking to images on slides, people and places that mattered to him and it worked wonderfully. We both managed to keep relaxed when the slides seemed to disappear (he’d a left a blank in the middle)- we had a really enjoyable onstage exchange. He even talked about my tatau, those he designed, as one more facet of his great artistic range. It all went down really well from the feedback we were given.
What a first day with so many pleasures: our friend Margaret Samuels met us for an evening meal afterwards and we were able to mull a rich and varied diet of writers on writing over a selection of Indian curries. I’d seen so many enthusiastic people wanting to get involved in what Murray Gray, Naomi and their team had laid on for us; it was really refreshing after weeks of dirty political dealings flayed alive on the hustings. Tomorrow was promising more of the same, but different. Even old Tennyson would have have approved: he sure looks the part of a Titirangi hippie right here.