Fighting the cultural cringe

By Paula Morris In Books

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London’s first Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts took place at the weekend featuring a hundred “speakers and performers” in more than 60 events at King’s College in the Strand, although for parts of the media and Twitterverse it was the absence of a speaker – namely Julian Assange – that was of most interest.

Tim Winton, in ponytail and fleece top, was the opening night attraction; Clive James was the big drawcard. Panels abounded – on world wars, Antarctica, “Indigenous Issues”, historical novels, YA, “graphic storytelling” and crime writing. Literary doyenne Carmen Callil, the Australian-born founder of Virago, led a discussion on lost Australian classics; Margaret Drabble, Linda Grant and Stephanie Johnson discussed the life and work of Janet Frame.

Julian Assange in 2011. Photo/Chris Bourchier/Rex Features

An eighty-something Fay Weldon was driven up from her home on a hill in Dorset so I could pepper her with nosy questions about her New Zealand childhood. John Pilger hosted a screening of his new documentary, Utopia. New Zealanders based in London, such as Fleur Adcock, Stella Duffy and Anthony McCarten, were joined by a jetlagged long-distance contingent that included Johnson, Witi Ihimaera, CK Stead, Charlotte Grimshaw, Steve Braunias and Sarah Laing.

Much was promised – or maybe threatened – of this festival by the biggish (Australian) guns shooting their mouths off on the website. “Dear England,” wrote Thomas Keneally, “We’re sending you a big present: our writers, film and music makers. It’s about time we got round to startling you, and the moment approaches.” Kathy Lette talked about the “opportunity to showcase our remarkable, original, quirky and bloody brilliant literary and creative talents”.

But London’s not easily startled, and on any given weekend there are hundreds of brash little showcases trying to wriggle into what speakers at one of the numerous pre-festival launch events referred to as the “cultural spotlight”. The British media proved resistant to pretty much anything but the talk by an ailing Clive James, and the British public preferred authors already famous locally – James, Winton, Lette, Helen Garner – rather than anyone startling in their newness. When Aboriginal writer Anita Heiss asked the audience at the Big Debate event to raise their hands if they were expats, the majority of the room obliged, and an exasperated Heiss complained that she’d thought the audience would be British.

Perhaps because I live in the UK, and had infiltrated the festival’s advisory board some months ago, I arrived in London with fewer delusions and more anxiety. London insiders had muttered words of discouragement: almost nobody goes to readings in London, they said, and absolutely nobody goes to anything bookish at 10am on a Sunday.

The New Zealand contingent was accustomed to writers’ festivals like Auckland – with over 50,000 tickets sold this year in a buzzing, overflowing Aotea Centre – versus something tucked away and conference-like, with about 2000 tickets sold. It was all a little cheap and cheerful, with mistakes in the programme and endless room changes. There wasn’t enough foot traffic to fill chairs at the free between-events readings. University workmen bustled around painting and drilling, denying all knowledge of the festival; the closest tube station, Temple, obligingly closed down for engineering repairs. No signage for the festival seemed to be permitted outdoors, and some would-be attendees languished in the wrong reception area. Nobody seemed sure about the location of the men’s toilets.

“A lot of energy this year was spent on building the house,” Jon Slack, the affable Adelaide-born festival director, told me, admitting his small team was “stretched” and promoting events in oversaturated London was a “giant” challenge. “Now that’s there, we can focus more on artistic stuff.”

“Artistic stuff” isn’t really the sole focus for Slack and his team from non-profit Amphora Arts, organisers of the South Asian Literature Festival: they need to raise more money. With first-year ticket sales modest rather than respectable, the festival relied on A$100,000 from the Australia Council for the Arts, with a far smaller contribution from Arts Council England, and even less from a cautious, hard-stretched Creative New Zealand – around NZ$25,000, Slack estimates – along with a sprinkling of corporate sponsorship and about £13,000 in crowd-funding.

The two Jills – Jill Eddington from the Australia Council and Jill Rawnsley from CNZ – haunted the festival corridors, monitoring their investment. Even the most junket-crazed writer can see how hard it may be to justify the investment. Sending writers to the other side of the world makes sense if they’re connecting with new audiences – agents, publishers, media, readers. But if those new audiences don’t show up, it’s just costly community outreach: fun for bookish expats, but opening no new doors for writers who struggle to find a foothold in Britain.

The relative paucity of income had numerous implications, including an over-reliance on social media for marketing and on volunteer labour to staff the festival. Some overseas authors were put up in a hotel, but some of us answered the pleas to stay with friends, and there was a lot of confusion – and grumbling – over who was and wasn’t receiving a fee and/or a per diem.

Of course, authorial discontent is an essential part of any writers’ gathering. “Writers should never be grateful,” Fay Weldon declared at our Sunday session, talking about our relationship with those who pay us: it’s a business relationship, she insisted, rather than a favour from a friend. But a lot of us seemed to be taking her at her word. Writers scoured the pop-up book shop, run by Stanford’s, to search for missing titles. Weldon’s husband emailed me to complain that the two books most relevant to a conversation with her about New Zealand – her memoir, Auto Da Fay, and her 2011 novel Kehua! – were not on sale at all. I was just relieved a small shipment from Penguin managed to arrive in the nick of time, trying not to grind my teeth when an Actual British Person – a non-expat attendee! – told me she’d tried to buy a copy of my novel Rangatira but they’d sold out.

Other complaints: too many Australian sweets in the lobby lolly stand; too much Australian chardonnay in the Green Room. Too many Australians generally, but then Australia was paying for almost everything. That’s why, perhaps, the star turn at the opening night party had to be Australian comedian Adam Hills, who talked about the Beijing Paralympics and didn’t mention anything to do with books at all. The Australian High Commissioner, welcoming everyone, said there was one word that always came up when talking about Australians. “Drunk?” shouted one New Zealander, who may or may not have been Stephanie Johnson. The High Commissioner didn’t appear to hear her. “Laconic” was the word he had in mind.

We didn’t get to hear much about New Zealanders, because our own High Commissioner, Sir Lockwood Smith, was out of the country attending a family wedding. This didn’t mean his name wasn’t bandied about all weekend. Australian journalist Andrew Fowler, author of Wikileaks chronicle The Most Dangerous Man in the World, busily told anyone who’d listen that a scheduled festival interview – via Skype – with Julian Assange had been cancelled on the express orders of … Smith’s wife. According to Lady Smith, he said, the New Zealand government would take its money and spend it elsewhere, possibly on a handful of Oyster cards and a bottle of decent un-oaked chardonnay.

Because it would not be a writers’ festival unless I embroiled myself in squabbles, I tried to challenge this storm-in-a-plastic-cup. In February, I was at the advisory board meeting when this interview was mooted as a possible event, along with dozens of other ideas, and no one in a room of (mostly Australian) board members was very keen; there was no mention of it in the draft schedule we reviewed at the follow-up programming meeting. How could an event be cancelled when it was never scheduled? And could Lockwood Smith – or any of his family members – command Creative New Zealand to reverse a funding decision? “Wikileaks keeps tweeting about it,” a weary Slack told me. “They’re trying to create a story. It’s bollocks.”

Witi Ihimaera. Photo/David White

Trying to create a story: weren’t we all? Witi Ihimaera and I had decided to try something new at this festival, unable to decide if it was a good or a bad thing that we were scheduled against a sold-out Clive James. At the Frankfurt Book Fair two years ago, Witi noted the kapa haka performers and the attending writers rarely intersected. Why not combine performance with reading? We had the dark, decorative King’s College Chapel as a venue; we’d persuaded Ngati Ranana, the London-based kapa haka group, to send along six of its members. We rehearsed in good-natured chaos all Saturday morning – in the chapel, in a lecture room, in the Green Room, in the hallway – and performed for a crowd of homesick expats, eager students of postcolonial lit, supportive whanau, and anyone who couldn’t get a ticket to Clive James.

My piece was a condensed and dramatised version of Rangatira, which is about a party of Maori who visited Britain in 1863 and spent much of their visit speaking and performing in a chapel much like this one; Witi’s was a distillation of a new play, All Our Sons, set during World War I. The chapel rang with the sound of karanga and haka. My husband was roped into a non-speaking role, and we bullied Steve Braunias into playing the token Pakeha in both pieces. Witi insisted I join him at the altar to welcome the audience, then launched into a waiata I didn’t know – although I managed to struggle through, a beat behind, with lots of vague long vowels passing for actual Maori words. But it was an exhilarating, chaotic and intense hour, a real collaboration with the Ngati Ranana performers I’d love to repeat, possibly with more rehearsal time, and without discovering pages six and nine of the script were missing.

Some events were intense for the wrong reasons. The Big Debate on the festival’s closing night descended all too quickly into humourless acrimony. The topic – that the cultural cringe is over – triggered defensiveness in most speakers rather than the expected banter. I couldn’t keep track of who was for or against. By lauding the usual suspects – The Lord of the Rings! Nicole Kidman! Flight of the Conchords! Kylie Minogue! – too many of the panellists were arguing that overseas fame was the true mark of success. Isn’t that the very definition of cultural cringe?

The audience suffered in silence until panellist Juno Gemes described Jane Campion as an Australian; then all hell broke loose. Historian Paul Ham insisted cultural cringe would end when Australia rid itself of the monarchy, a board member accused Australians of being defensive about Vegemite, a British reader complained that we didn’t promote our literature enough in the UK, because she couldn’t find our books in the shops, and a YA author in the audience weepily announced she’d never felt cultural cringe until this moment.

“Really,” Slack told me, “the festival has become about the relationship between Australia and New Zealand.” He saw it as a positive; I’m not entirely sure. Round two next year? I hope so.

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