After a hectic day getting riled up about Brexit and then learning to Vogue the FAFSWAG way, I settled down with relief for some good old-fashioned storytelling.
WORD Christchurch director Rachael King took to the stage first to introduce the Mortification session, inspired by an anthology of the same name edited by Robin Robertson in which writers tell stories of their public shame. She was joined in person by Robertson, Paula Morris, Steve Braunias, Megan Dunn, and Jarrod Gilbert; and in spirit by Irvine Welsh.
After a brief word from Robertson we were treated to a video from Welsh, who told a truly horrifying story of having shat himself in public and then trying to clean himself up in a filthy public loo. The tale also involved being laughed at by a bunch of drunk Glaswegians while standing naked from the waist down trying to wash himself in the sink. So gross – yet so funny. He really set the tone.
Morris was up next. ‘I have no public befoulings’ she said, to my relief, but instead told a story of ‘a thousand small humiliations’, often involving miniskirts. ‘I have the legs of a Polynesian seafarer and they need to be on display’ – but various wardrobe malfunctions have meant ‘once again feeling the breeze where the breeze should not be felt’. Her story of being perched awkwardly on a posh chair at an opera concert ‘vagina on velvet’ was particularly well told – and most women will be able to relate to the mortification of an unexpected period just when you’ve chosen to wear white trousers.
Braunias’ story was beautifully composed, with apparently unrelated details all coming together at the end. He first said he’d spied Helen Clark here at WORD, ‘storming along like a southerly in slacks’, before reminiscing about his life as a young man in Wellington – ‘the city felt like a jagged edge’ – refusing to go on his OE because NZ was too strange and baffling to leave. I can’t do justice to the story without relating it in full – hopefully there will be a second volume of Mortification and you’ll be able to read it for yourself. Suffice to say that I will never see the back of Helen Clark’s head the same way again.
Dunn took us in a completely different direction with a tale of trying to be a mermaid – including repeated use of the term ‘mermazing’ which I now wish to work into my everyday conversations. As part of her research for her forthcoming book, she took a mermaiding class in Florida, where ‘the heat sat on my skin like processed cheese’. She was told to undulate not just her body but also her head and neck: ‘I felt really dumb’. But she gave it a try – ‘middle age is gamely keeping going’ – despite a ‘deep sense of ugliness that’s hard to shake’. Dunn concluded that her happy place is in a bookshop, not the water, where mermaids are safely sealed within the pages of books ‘where they bloody should be’.
Our final storyteller was Gilbert, who told the story of trying to win a bet to run a marathon in three and a half hours. This involved him striding to the centre of the stage to act out a particularly mortifying episode from his training whereby he had to take an emergency dump in public on the side of the Sumner causeway, ‘possibly the most exposed piece of geography on earth’. He called the marathon ‘cruel and despicable insanity’ – but he did win the bet when he finished with a time of 3 hours 28 minutes. ‘It’s very difficult for me to describe just how little satisfaction that gave me.’
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage