The Kāpiti Independent brings you an exclusive report of an important NZ event in London, featuring leading writers and performers, which has been largely overlooked in New Zealand.
Here’s the report from our London correspondent, Tom Aitken.
A New Zealand Festival in LondonFrom Tom Aitken in London
London has just hosted hosted an exhilarating and significant series of New Zealand events supported by the New Zealand Government and Victoria University.
Three poets gave readings and discussed how their work reflected New Zealand’s changing consciousness of its place in the world during the past fifty years. The New Zealand String Quartet, quartet-in-residence at Victoria University since 1991, played three concerts.
These events were staged in Kings Place, home to the Guardian/Observer Group, which incorporates office, conference and events spaces. It is part of one of London’s most astonishing and engaging recent developments.
Who would have thought that you could create a 743,200 square metre ‘new piece’ of London, on the northern edges of the City and the West End, less than two miles from Big Ben? And, furthermore, make of it a cultural centre, an ‘in’ place to live, dine and party, and a far-reaching travel hub. And all adjacent to the picturesque Regents Canal.
King’s Cross station has been refurbished. St Pancras station, now Britain’s railway ‘open sesame’ to the Netherlands, France and beyond, has also been refurbished––and attached to the St Pancras Hotel, a spectacularly Victorian Gothic folly.
The three poets who gathered to launch the New Zealand season––Fleur Adcock, Bill Manhire and Tusiata Avia (of Samoan descent, born and raised in Christchurch, a performance poet of imposing presence)––represented three generations. Their brief was to illustrate, through their own work and more generally, changes in New Zealand and its view of the world at large during the last fifty years.
Gary McKeone, former Literature Director at Arts Council England, who took the chair, hails from Derry in Northern Island, which imparted an edge to his remarks about the relationship between language and colonial power.
The three poets are well practised at getting audiences onto their wavelength. All three used pithy observation to illuminate the changes in society, at large and in specific details, as illustrated by their own lives and observations.
Fleur Adcock was literally the grandmother among them, a grandmother with an ageless––even childlike––sense of humour and pathos. What happened yesterday and what happened sixty-odd years ago nudge each other in her writing.
In Strangers on a Tram, travelling with schoolfriends, she pretends not to recognize her mother, and is cross when the compliment is repaid––with a ‘furtive wink’. The conclusion is vintage Adcock:
How dare she have the cheek to understand me!
It was hard to work out what to resent.
This edgy/fond relationship with her mother is paralleled by Adcock’s sense of herself vis a vis New Zealand.
When she was five, her father’s career path brought her to England from 1939 until 1947. Having experienced the problems of a funny accent when she started at school in England, she went through the same thing in reverse in New Zealand on her return.
After classics at Victoria University, spells at Otago as assistant lecturer and assistant librarian, and short-lived marriages to Alastair Campbell and Barry Crump, she returned to England in 1963 and has lived here, most of the time as a free-lance writer, ever since.
She has, then, spent almost sixty years in England, against about twenty in New Zealand.
Yet, although she often feels that she is not really any longer a New Zealander, she has children and grandchildren and other family connections in that far away place, whom she visits and who visit her in London. She still has a distinctively New Zealand sounding voice.
I suspect that her attitude might still be summarized by something she said to me in 1983 when I interviewed her for The New Zealand Woman’s Weekly. She had recently been in New Zealand, editing an Anthology of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry for Oxford. She had found the response a bit daunting:
‘Who id I think I was, this Pommie, coming back after twenty years to tell them? But––and I hope you say this––I enjoyed doing it and I do think there’s a lot of good poetry in New Zealand. So there!’
Bill Manhire got us laughing by starting his reading with Denis Glover’s Here is the News. He talked about the New Zealanders’ experience of going abroad and finding out that his or her country had completely disappeared. Only sport or a disaster could get it into newspapers.
He illustrated this with his own poem about Phar Lap. (Mention at this point of long running battles with you-know-who about the country of birth of the legendary racehorse and the pavlova recipe.)
Subsequently I learned that Manhire’s bedroom when he was a teenager was more crammed with the impedimenta of boyhood and adolescence than mine was, but I recognised most of the individual items. The wizardry that wove them into something between a patter song and a nostalgic lyric was impressive.
Also impressive and engaging was his Poem for Erebus, written for Sir Edmund Hillary to recite at a memorial event. Someone had reported hearing Sir Edmund’s performance: ‘Boy, he gave it heaps!’
Bill was told that Sir Edmund himself had said he ‘quite liked it.’
Tusiata Avia told us how she’d grown up thinking that she’d like to be a poet, but ‘poetry didn’t happen to girls like me.’
But it did ‘happen’, and she was able to give us vivid word pictures of people who ‘got left behind’ while others were ‘traipsing around the world’. These were often funny, sometimes anything but.
She gave us vivid pictures of young Samoan women dealing with problems of life in a New Zealand city, in a patois which I suppose blended Samoan thought patterns and everyday New Zealand English.
One poem recreated her trip across Christchurch to find her daughter immediately after the earthquake. Her search successfully concluded, she notices a result of the disaster which seemed a kind of miracle.
Before the quake, a statue of the Blessed Virgin had gazed inwards at the faithful entering the basilica. Afterwards, having executed a 180 degree turn, she gazed outwards, at unbelievers hurrying by.
A theme that permeated the week as a whole was that of isolation and its effects on New Zealanders’ consciousness of the world.
Is New Zealand, having previously relied on Europe for its culture and traditions, now investigating the world at large? Bill Manhire thought that this was certainly true of music, but in literature, the Pacific was the new focal point.
John Psathas, the composer ‘proud to be Greek and a Kiwi’, agreed that in music the focus was now worldwide.
During the Victoria University Alumni gathering, he gave a talk in which he illustrated how a composer working anywhere on the globe can distribute his work world wide, and indeed can in effect work in other countries while staying at home. For Kiwis, he said, isolation was no longer a factor.
Which brings me to the two concerts I heard. The New Zealand String Quartet. They played music in wide-ranging old and new idioms (Beethoven, Jack Body, Gillian Whitehead, John Psathas, Gao Ping, Tan Dun) with sensitivity, command and brilliance.
Jonathan Lemalu joined them to sing Gao Ping’s setting of poems by Mu Xin. He made this look and sound easy, which cannot have been the case.
The great thrill, however, was to become acquainted with the work of Richard Nunns, the authority on Maori musical instruments. He said two very memorable things:
Arriving on stage to talk about Maori instruments, he said, ‘As you can probably see, I suffer from Parkinsons’,’ then got on with his talk and demonstration.
He liked Gillian Whitehead’s music, because she allowed him to improvise. ‘Gillian says,’ he reported, ‘that “I write for those who need to read––and I leave holes for Richard.”’
As it happens I enjoyed my own private moment of understanding and enlargement of the themes of the week.
From the row behind I heard, as I thought, a New Zealand voice ending a conversation. I turned to see who it was. The woman smiled. I asked her where in New Zealand she was from.
‘I’m not a New Zealander,’ she said. I gaped. ‘But I lived in New Zealand for twenty years. I was a “ten pound Pom” in the 1950’s.’
She had been in Taranaki, not so far from Taumarunui, where I was then at school. And, having studied music at Auckland, she knew a sadly-missed friend of mine, Tom Rive, who taught her counterpoint.
Kings Place publicity desk had assured us that we would be given words and music that crossed oceans, continents and centuries. So, indeed, we were.