New Zealand Listener Gala Opening Night: True Stories Told Live – Truth and Lies

True Stories Told Live: Truth and LiesAWF_2014_Get-The-Full-Story

There was a great buzz at the Aotea Centre on Thursday night for the gala festival event,
in which eight writers were invited to speak on the theme of truth and lies for seven minutes, with neither scripts nor props.

Auckland Writers Festival director Anne O’Brien introduced the evening with the rather startling assertion that artists have 229% more sex than average (truth? or damned lies and statistics?), before Carol Hirschfeld (left) stepped in with her newscaster’s air of unflappable calm to MC the evening.

pp_inua_ellamsFirst up was Nigerian British poet and performer Inua Ellams (left). Obviously supremely confident in front of an audience, he took to centre stage (rather than hiding behind the podium) to tell us a story of a long-ago breakup. “If all breakups were this beautiful”, he said, “I’d break up every day.” He painted a vivid picture of a Cambridge dorm room, a beautiful girl, and the sun coming out to illuminate a tear on her cheek. He helped heal the pain of heartbreak with poetry: “poetry helps me rediscover who I am”.

Ellams finished with that famous quote from Keats: ” ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Ellams was followed by celebrated photographer Marti Friedlander, hailed by Hirschfeld as a national treasure. She started with one minute’s silence for the abducted Nigerian girls − an uncomfortable truth if ever there were one − before lightening the mood by remarking that, in marriage, lies are often preferable. Charmingly, Friedlander confessed “I’ve told some fantastic lies in my time and I’m pleased to have told them.”

Next up was American novelist AM Homes (right), homes_amwho, it turned out, had lied when she agreed to do a scriptless event, instead taking to the podium to read us an extract from her memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter. Nobody minded: she’s a superb storyteller, and gripped us all with a tale of her own beginnings. A lawyer heralded her birth: “your bundle has arrived, and it’s wrapped in pink ribbons.” She compared the discovery of bits of data about her birth parents to being a recovering amnesiac. Homes recalls the strangeness of meeting her birth father and recognising her body on him, “the departments of ass”. She left me with a desire to read her books.

The fourth writer/performer was explorer and historian Huw Lewis-Jones, standing in for Lawrence Hill, who had been prevented by illness from attending. Lewis-Jones strode barefoot onto the stage and structured his talk around his lack of shoes. He invited us to consider their absence: Was it to better appreciate the carpet? To use shoelessness as a prop? To illustrate the way his journeys follow in the footsteps of great explorers? Eventually he hinted he was following the advice of a kuia, who had told him to take off his shoes for his talk in order to better connect to the earth − and so as to not walk mud into the building.

Irvine WelshBritish Lewis-Jones was followed by Scottish Irvine Welsh (left), author of Trainspotting. After commenting on the zombification of jet leg “(just like taking drugs, only without the fun part”), he launched into a rollicking yarn about a devilish cat. This cat, a giant, pit-bull-like tom (who I thought must have been like Greebo from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld), “kidnapped my wife” by trapping her in a bathroom. It then emigrated to Illinois with its owners, where it took on not only the neighbourhood cats but also a coyote! Welsh made us laugh and I was sorry to see him leave the stage.

Next up was Kiwi columnist and novelist Sarah-Kate Lynch (right) , spicing things up in a black pp_sarah-kate-lynchsmltutu. She spoke feelingly about the terror being asked to go scriptless, and the way her seven minutes on stage had taken up hundreds of hours of worrying. Lynch promised to tell us the story of buying pyjamas for her dead father, but instead ended up talking about an anxiety dream she had had before the festival, in which she was delivering her seven-minute talk to us naked, and (in the dream) needed to bend down and pick up her lucky pen. I hope she is able to enjoy the feeling of relief that it’s now all over.

After Lynch we had a complete change of pace with Egyptian writer Yasmine El Rashidi, who somehow managed to come across as very private and shy while also being an excellent public speaker, creating a sense of intimacy in the huge Aotea Centre theatre. She spoke movingly about her absent father, who went away on business for a fortnight and was still gone twelve years later. Rashidi said her friends call her “slippery”, and told the story of slipping out of a writers’ retreat after being aggressively love-bombed by an ultra-successful bright young thing.

bulldozerThe final writer to grace the stage was the inimitable Alexander McCall-Smith, author of one of my favourite series, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. He began with the grandiloquent claim to be the only writer present telling the truth, and proceeded to spin a tall tale about a trip Montalcino. He claimed that, in the absence of hire cars available, he instead hired a bulldozer in which to pootle about the Tuscan countryside: “the advantage of which is that you can remove the bits you don’t like”. I think it was the way he collapsed into laughter at this point which was my first clue that his claim to truth was itself a lie. His wonderful good humour was infectious and got the whole audience chuckling.

After Hirschfeld had summed up the writers’ performances, a short memoriam film was shown to mark the passing of many authors over the past twelve months. Then all writers returned to the stage and we were invited to meet them at the book signing table afterwards. One thing’s for certain: the festival’s off to a rollicking great start!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage


Huw Lewis-Jones at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival

The Octagon seemed like the best place in the world to be this weekend. The autumn sun slanted down through the plane tree leaves, the shadows were deep, and Danish socialism ruled democratically in the Art Gallery.

They came from all over to honour the authors of the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival. Lovers of poetry, lovers of prose. Collectors of anecdote, participants in the human conversation. And along to the left, then up some stairs to the Dunningham Suite in the Dunedin Public Library, shortly after lunch, came those with a mind for mountaineering.

Huw Lewis-Jones is a bearded Englishman pp_huw_lewis-jones(picture from ODT, right). He is a graduate of Cambridge. He looks about twenty-five years old. His PhD thesis was entitled something along the lines of ‘The Geographical History of Thought and Ideas Down the Ages.’ Brilliant. He is an expert in maritime and polar exploration history, an advisor for television documentary makers, and a guide on Polar cruises. In short, he knows what he is talking about. And he talks about it with gusto.

This afternoon he was in Dunedin to shed light on George Lowe’s physical and pictorial contribution to his book The Conquest of Everest (Thames and Hudson) 9780500544235, and to present Lowe’s photos and tales (many of them previously unpublished and untold) from a recently published book of Lewis-Jones’s. That word ‘conquest,’ incidentally, the writer confessed to despising, quoting Edmund Hillary, who stated: “You don’t conquer a mountain, you conquer yourself.”

cv_conquest_everestHuw Lewis-Jones, showing no signs of jet lag, was introduced by a beaming Neville Peat – local natural historian and writer – who launched in by describing Lewis-Jones as “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” an accusation that could well be leveled at Peat himself. In fact, the atmosphere of the whole event was one of enthusiastic bonhomie. The audience members were swept along.

Lewis-Jones began by asserting that in the event of a fire, don’t leave the building until we had bought his book. He eased into his lecture proper by acknowledging the recent passing of George Lowe, whom he described as “a beautiful, wonderful man.” He then zeroed in on the origins and ongoing closeness of Lowe’s friendship with Edmund Hillary; it was a mountain climbing kinship that carried them from the Southern Alps to the Himalayas in 1952 and ultimately up Everest in May of the following year.

Hillary’s part in the ultimate ascent is fairly well known, Lowe’s less so. Lewis-pp_george_loewJones’s book, and lectures like this afternoon’s, sought to redress that balance a little. Not that Lowe (pictured right) was troubled by the omission. But if you consider the mind-boggling organization, teamwork and support that went into the 1953 expedition as a pyramid (350 porters, 17 tons of supplies, 15 climbers in the English team and many more Sherpas) then Lowe was at the tip of that pyramid. He spent ten days carving steps up to the South Col (nearly ruining himself) and set up camps for Hillary and Tenzing. He waited by himself and met them first on the descent, to have his ears warmed by Hillary’s famous line, “…We knocked the bastard off!” He photographed them coming down (a descent held in higher regard by Hillary than the ascent, “Going up a mountain is optional, coming down is mandatory…”) and he filmed many stages of the expedition. He really was, as Lewis-Jones noted, ‘the third man of Everest.’

There was a lot to digest in the Dunningham everest cakeSuite as Lewis-Jones lived up to his Cambridge nickname of ‘One More, Huw’ — rattling off opinions and facts, the stories behind the photos, and first-hand comments from the climbers (Hillary on why there isn’t a photo of himself on the summit: “It wasn’t the place to teach Tenzing how to use the camera.” Lowe on the pitfalls of fame: “We were given so many bloody Everest cakes.”) Mind you, nobody was complaining as ‘One More, Huw’ hove on.

Everything though must come to an end and this ended (almost) with the writer responding to questions from the audience about Everest today. He said, “You can’t tell a person NOT to climb if they want to. But I think you must be able to climb under your own steam.” He went on to say that while tourism is a critical part of Himalayan life, what he objects to is that now, people essentially pay money to get to the top, and that has led to other people dying while trying to make it happen. He then once more quoted a blunt Edmund Hillary: “It’s all bullshit these days.”

Then Lewis-Jones really did finish up, with a photo of Lowe and Hillary on a West Coast glacier. On the back of the polaroid is a short note from Lowe to his friend, a sort of haiku on friendship and exploration. It reads:

Shall we?
Can we?
Will we?
Should we?
Could we?
What do you reckon?

The applause wouldn’t die down; the audience clearly reckoned that George Lowe, not to mention the man before us, was the real deal. Neville Peat reckoned Lewis-Jones should come back soon with his wife and daughter. I reckon that in a Himalaya of high-quality Festival events, this was a lofty peak.

Event attended and reviewed by Aaron Blaker on behalf of Booksellers NZ 

Huw Lewis-Jones will be doing an event this evening in Christchurch with the Christchurch Writers’ Festival, and carrying on to the Auckland Writers’ Festival for an event on Thursday 15 May, and another on Saturday 17 May.