Writers festivals are such a glorious indulgence. Yes, there are people starving, there is war, there is pain. But let us put all that to one side for a few days and revel in the magic of words. Arranged so artfully and carefully that what is commonsense becomes inspirational, what is lyrical defines a new beauty.
Preaching, figuratively and literarily, to the converted.
In the spaces between conversations held on the stage, the attendees make small talk with each other. They are all from the same tribe, after all, so usual social distance is set aside as efficiently as we step away from the day-to-day of weekend life. The venue hums with the chatter of the white middle classes.
Standing alone in a queue for a book signing, one is witness to an inane conversation between two blonded, nipped and tucked women. How she did her best with child-raising; how the child still screamed in unfair self-centredness that her mother had never watched one of her netball games. A descent into the complexities of breast-feeding. Even – and by now seriously wondered whether it was worth standing in the queue – how some women get too attached to their breast pumps, in some weird guilt-trip solution to the fact that they are leaving their nourishment behind while being physically absent from the child-raising. Despite the temptation to turn around and join in – I too was never blessed with my parents attendance at my netball games, although I do remember going with them to watch my only brother play soccer – I stare at the enormous fish tapestry, do a few Pilates toe-stands, and take a deep breath.
I get to the counter, my moment in the presence of a literary rock-star. I ask him if he has been to NZ before, or if he will get to look around. He is a first time visitor, and isn’t sure how much time he has (off to a festival in Australia I suppose). I reassure him that there is more to NZ society than what stands before him. “Festivals are always like that.” He tells me. Which seems a shame really, when I am talking to a giant, ruddy-faced black Jamaican gay guy who shatters all the stereotypical images one might hold of a writer.
The clamour of the crowd is most deafening during the change over from one rock star to the next. Queues start to form outside the doors well in advance, as seating is not allocated, so it pays to be prompt if you want to be close to the stage – close to the source of wisdom, great and small, about to be imparted for a paltry $20 per session, early bird pricing. So once again one is either a full stop between conversations, or a participant. “Who have you seen?” “Have you been here all day?” “Is your head fit to explode?”.
What is the correct response when one of the distinguished guests, a fairly unremarkable looking but addictively animated woman who, I find out later, was born the same year as me, writes things like:
“It is not only a wild nature that we need as human beings; it is the untamed open space of our imaginations.” (‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’, Jeanette Winterson, Vintage, 2012).
Part of me is entranced, uplifted, awed. The other part of me is faced with the realisation that it is almost certainly too late to ‘make my mark’ on the world in any lasting and notable way; certainly in any literary way.
Except by planting trees, which I did, the weekend before. I thought that was compensation for being in a small way linked to the harvesting of some hardwood timber from the Highlands of PNG, but I see now it is merely the contribution I will make to the greater good.
My personal choice from the programme was effectively based on timing. To be honest I hadn’t heard of most of the writers that filled out the booklet, so it was a bit pot-luck and bit spaced out to fill just one day. Also possible to schedule a break for lunch, and a bit of retail therapy downtown – since commencing working from home, something of a luxury.
Flicking through Vanity Fair magazine, they sometimes have interviews with people who list their ‘brands’ – stationery, linen, shoes, clothes, hair care, makeup. I went in search of new underwear, and subsequently find myself with a new ‘brand’. “Have you worn it before?” the lovely young salesperson asked me, “you will love it.” I think I will. I think sometimes we need a treat, although trying on underwear under bright lights is not treat, it is a torture. I decided a while ago that we have too many choices, and I could save time and effort by selecting a few retail outlets and sticking to them. Trust their buyers to pre-select for me, reduce the options and just pick from what is available. Now underwear has joined this campaign, and despite my cynicism that anyone has a ‘brand’ of anything that isn’t just what was on sale, I can see the pleasure of simplicity. Job done.
The gala night is a short cut to mucking up the best laid plans, because you get a snippet, but a memorable snippet, of some of the world’s finest writers. This sends you scurrying back to the programme to see if it is possible to pack in a few more sessions. It also sends you scurrying in the other direction, to the pop-up bookstore, so that you can purchase one or other of the books of the writer that has just impressed you with their insightful prose, and get it signed as a reminder of a moment that mattered.
Jeanette Winterson had the advantage of being last on stage this year. Thus, though the Dutch writer was funny and the Zimbabwean was impressive, it is Jeanette’s book which I bought home, and have now finished reading. Love, the strength of the human spirit to survive what would have sent most of us bonkers, and very nearly did her, the shattering of a sense of place that is a by-product of adoption own the 1960’s – it is all there. Playing out at the same time as my life.
Armed with shopping to go with the books purchased from the Jamaican, I ask a man if I can sit beside him on a sofa while I wait for the next presentation. We engage in ‘festival chatter’ and he tells me he is waiting for his wife. Somehow, and I don’t know how, it emerges that he went to Fiji for 6 weeks as a volunteer to help restore running water after the cyclone (he was wearing his branded plumbing company jersey – it is a festival not a fashion show). He has done it before – he went to Thailand after the tsunami in 2004 and did the same thing. A real and actual hero in the midst of literary groupies. Most of us just read about what other people do; some people actually do it.
At last, the final event of the day. A second choice, to replace someone tied up in immigration issues. British, funny, and it seems, in the right circles, really, really, famous. He is enchanting, as one might expect, and bewildered that people pay money to listen to his thoughts, presented as plays, for hours on end.
It is not hard to see why – he is rather alarmingly honest for our kiwi sensibilities – we don’t openly admit to having affairs, but his words were very wise – “You can do what ever you like, but just remember that you have to be prepared to pay the price.”
Nepalese food for dinner on the way home, and the end of what might be deemed a perfect day. Thought provoking, uplifting, frightening, inspiring, tiring, satisfying, amusing.
Exactly what we are supposed to be, each and every one of us.