Readers and Writers Day One

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20 October, MTG, HBAF18
By Anna Soutar

I’ve just spent the day with a bunch of spies and detectives. They are stereotypical:  they tweak open those shoe boxes lying forgotten under the bed; they open up diaries written in the languages of time past, articles printed in newspaper columns and illustrated in cartoons whose humour has gone stale with age.

They belong in this Festival of Art because having located these missing clues, hitherto lost in dust motes or buried in emotion, they took the brave step forbidden to the rest of us ordinary mortals; they applied the craft of writing to their researched secrets.

They are the Readers and Writers of our Arts Community. Today has been Day One of my investigation.

The first suspect pinned to our wall board is Helen Brown affectionately known to many New Zealanders for her newspaper columns which were philosophical, personal, funny and often wise, a wisdom delivered in a plain brown (Brown?) wrapper and missed dreadfully when it vanished with her over to Australia. Her books are about her cats; or not, because the cat in each is a metaphor for the suspect’s anguish at the loss of her son and then later, her marriage. She and inquisitor Jess Soutar Barron talk companionably about the cats in their lives and Helen is led to reveal a great deal about using creative visualisation to move from cats to breast cancer; to her daughter the Buddhist nun turned clinical psychiatrist; to take us to New York where she becomes part of a community of animal fosterers. She considers the possibilities of foster animals as a tourist attraction. We are left with an enigma embedded between being the lover or the beloved, an erudite but still mysterious enigma, which calls for further research.

Peter Wells: author, film maker, historian is next in the chair. He has an impeccable Hawke’s Bay pedigree through his one hundred year old mother. Her age and what a century of experience means is gently exposed during a charming conversation Peter had with her, and reported in his latest book as he explains how one of her granddaughters has brought her female partner and their little boy to Napier to meet relatives. The boy is Oliver and explains the origin of the title of Peter’s book “Dear Oliver”. His mother’s reaction to his explanation is merely to say, ”It’s a funny old world”.

He is joined on the stage by Elizabeth Smither, poet and wordsmith of New Plymouth. We are promised more from Elizabeth tomorrow as this study continues.  Both Peter and Elizabeth are fierce lovers of words, even to the extent in Peter’s case of recounting word for word the awful details of his diagnosis and treatment for prostate cancer. He is one who has readily adopted the opportunities of social media to the extent of typing his blog on the limiting keyboard of an i-pad device. These constraints were brought about by his sleepless ill state, and the witnesses today (our audience) nod at his unerring ability to distill in a few words a deeply poetic essential truth – for example he discusses the situation of the nineteenth century pioneer living in the atrocious conditions of raw New Zealand land to whom letters become refined  clues to understanding. He calls them the “freeze dried moments of a life left behind”.

Next to take the stand are a group of academics from the University of Otago, hosted by Tryphena Cracknell who was last seen in floor talks at Hastings District Art Gallery. They included Barbara Brookes, Professor of History, Angela Wanhalla Associate Professor and Dr Lachy Paterson of the Te Tumu School of Maori Pacifica and Indigenous Studies at Otago. Together they unravel a “Shrieking Sisterhood”  of women’s protests as seen in various evidential material, Paterson and Wanhalla using newspapers of the 19th century, and Brookes by displaying slides of contemporary cartoons underlining how the use of language and imagery has continually  suppressed  and repressed women’s opinions and issues.

This court was particularly impressed by a woman brought to the stand via contemporary photographs, a woman with very little previous known history in the pakeha texts: Niniwa-ki-te-Rangi  (Ngati Hikuwera, Ngati Kahununu) writer in Te Reo, newspaper editor, journalist, businesswoman, horse breeder and a wealthy land owner. Importantly for these issues being discussed, she was a significant commentator on the times. But her determination to always report and deal in non-pakeha language meant that her point of view was easily ignored. A few grains of her intellect remain, one of which said “If you do not come, then stop complaining from afar.”

This court arrived, listened, adjourned and will re-convene tomorrow for Day Two of the Arts Festival Readers and Writer sessions.

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