New Zealand Listener Gala Night: True Stories Told Live

by Guy Somerset / 17 May, 2013
Les-BEE-ans, rock pigs and a gentlemen's magazine as authors interpret An Open Book.

Not many people really are open books, writers probably least of all. But An Open Book was the theme, and for their gala performance eight authors spoke around it, segued into it, or shoehorned it into a seven-minute anecdote.

Scottish poet and memoirist Jackie Kay (pictured right) kicked off, telling of the first meeting with her born-again Nigerian birth father. He insisted on going immediately back to her hotel room, she recalled, and once there he took a bible out of a plastic bag and proceeded to bless her for two and a half hours in order to cleanse her – for being one of his past sins. He also told her God had provided him with a younger wife to meet his sexual needs, and when Kay informed him she was gay – a les-BEE-an, as he said it – he was initially flummoxed, but soon wanted to know who was the “man”. “He had my toes – that’s about all we had in common.” She recounted the meeting to her adoptive mother, a serious leftie, who said, “Why not have a wee half bottle and forget all about it?”

Brit-Kiwi Peter Bland began his seven minutes by talking about living on an English munitions factory housing estate in the 1940s. It was dangerous work – shells went off and the TNT powder got into your blood and lungs, he said. He didn’t know his mother well, and his father, stranded in West Africa during the war, even less. One day he came home to find a fat bald man in the best chair by the fire. A whiff of shaggy dog entered the story at this point, when he asked his father for the meaning of life. Go ask a vicar, he said. The vicar said: look wider. A holy man in India said life is an open book. Boom. Tish.

Stephanie Johnson took her dog on a walk with one of those ball-launcher things, only to have the ball stolen by a yellow dog with a curled up tail and a small head and a small brain. Johnson, a great stage performer, harangued its poor owner so terrifyingly he handed over $20. It took the advice of several people and the passage of time before she got to give the man his change. "All knowledge, the totality of all questions and all answers is contained in the dog,” Franz Kafka apparently said.

“I was a methodical child – when I wasn’t on acid.” Sylvie Simmons (pictured right) put her albums in alphabetical order, so she was destined to become a rock journalist. Some of her subjects were difficult and, basically, pigs. Being a well-brought-up girl, Simmons wasn’t sure whether to talk to the (unnamed) punk band drummer during an interview or the woman attending to his sub-belt requirements.

Barcelona-raised Carlos Ruiz Zafon spoke about Acres of Books, a hangar-like bookstore in Los Angeles. He went with a germ-phobic, freeway-phobic friend in search of a Victor Hugo book, but found another story entirely when a 1942 love letter and train ticket fell out of it. It sounds the perfect place for festival-goers, with its one-eyed, three-legged cat and grumpy owner – but eventually they pulled paradise, and literally put up a parking lot.

Selina Tusitala Marsh joked, possibly, about her PhD thesis being the only book in her parents’ house – propping open the front door. They celebrated her graduation at KFC. Keeping with food, her mother made a demand when Marsh was due to make a speech after three ministers, one of the cloth and two of the crown: “I smell the pork – make it short.” Marsh then cheated a little, reciting a long poem about learning muay thai kickboxing.

Singapore-based Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka, or Lakalakalaka as he was known at Wanganui Collegiate when his family lived here during his teens, lured the most laughs from the audience of about a thousand. He spoke about his 15-year-old self – all bum-fluff and “jewfro” – getting through some tough school years with the help of the music of the Police and a “gentlemen’s magazine”. It worked as well as any fine literature, he said.

Gideon Haigh (pictured right), an Australian journalist, counterpointed all the humour with the tale of a backstreet abortionist in Melbourne of a few decades ago. Charlie Wyatt was a bad abortionist, as in an inept one, who ruined many a woman’s fertility and probably took some lives. It was actually the tale of the abortionist’s daughter, whom Haigh interviewed for what he thought of as an “important historic curio” of a story. When he showed her it for fact-checking, she was horrified. This was her story. Her children knew nothing of her father. Eightysomething Wyatt, now remarried to someone 20 years younger, would make life miserable for her and everyone involved. After a struggle of conscience, Haigh decided not to publish, but here’s the background to the story.

Festival director Anne O’Brien, who opened for MC Carol Hirschfeld, told the audience ticket sales are up on 2012 and 12,500 people are expected through this weekend.
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