Thursday, October 29, 2015

In praise of: Roger Hall

Last Thursday night, 22 October, I was in the Grand Hall at Parliament for the Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement 2015 to see Roger Hall (photo above is by Ross Giblin/Fairfax) receive the award for fiction. It was a very convivial night: I managed to talk to Dame Fiona Kidman; Owen Marshall; Chris and Barbara Else; Elizabeth Knox and Fergus Barrowman; my co-novelist Linda Burgess (Safe Sex, 1997); my favourite CNZ operatives, who must remain nameless; Jane Parkin, the editor’s editor (she has edited two of my books and as Wordsworth would say, “Oh, the difference to me!”); award selectors Paul Diamond and Morrin Rout; NZSA president Kyle Mewburn — and Ashleigh Young. Ashleigh Young! If you have you not read her debut poetry collection Magnificent Moon, do so immediately.

Before the speeches I sat down beside a kindly looking old gent. He said he thought he had been invited because he had written in support of Roger’s nomination. I said, “Me too.” We got chatting. He had no idea who I was – why would he? – but I certainly knew who he was: Bill Sheat. What a cultural hero that man is. He didn’t invent theatre and film in New Zealand, but we wouldn’t have what we do without him. He said he knew Roger from directing student skits at Victoria University written by Roger and Steve Whitehouse. I said, “I know Steve, he’s a friend.” So we got talking about what these two were like when young. The things one learns! Talking with Bill Sheat alone made the trip worthwhile.

But the main event for me was Roger getting the fiction award. It was a great result all round – the other winners were Bernadette Hall (no relation) for poetry and Dame Joan Metge for non-fiction; spookily, all three are published by Victoria University Press – but Roger’s award was special because it was the first time a playwright has won. They have always been eligible, but until now it has always been novelists and short-story writers. Roger winning opens the door to Renee, Greg McGee, a bunch of others.

What follows is an edited version of Roger’s acceptance speech.
These days I sum up my career as follows: 70 years a theatregoer; 50 years a writer; 40 years a playwright.
I’m honoured to be the first playwright to receive this award, and while it feels slightly strange getting it for Fiction I’m certainly not complaining. Someone said in fact I should have got it for non-fiction, as Glide Time was a documentary.
To all of you here, you have no idea how much this award means to me.
I’d like to thank Dianne and my wonderful family (many of whom are here tonight), but if I were to thank everyone in theatre whom I should, then we’d be here all night. So let me instead pay a tribute to New Zealand theatre as a whole.
In the late 1970s and 1980s there was a huge excitement about new New Zealand plays that were popping up all the time. Bruce Mason helped pave the way; Mervyn Thompson with O! Temperance and Songs to Uncle Scrim; Joe Musaphia’s smash hit Mothers and Fathers, which transferred from Downstage to the Opera House; Robert Lord’s Heroes and Butterflies and Well Hung; Glide Time and Middle Age Spread helped pushed things along. Renee’s wonderful Wednesday to Come and Pass it On. Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament took the country by storm (occasionally I still get congratulated for writing it); and the box-office daddy of them all Ladies’ Night. And there were many more.
We have a wonderful theatre history dating way before the 1970s and 80s, back in fact to Victorian times, but as far as I know not one museum in the country gives any display place to theatre at all.
If it seemed active then, that’s as nothing compared to now. There are now on average one and half new productions every day. Last year Playmarket alone issued more than 360 licences for New Zealand plays.
A check on the website Theatreview, which reviews all professional theatre productions, reveals that on a few days of this week (17-20 October) there were 10 productions. (An astonishing number of people still don’t know about Theatreview.)
And I’m not going to miss the chance to point out that in a few days there should be reviews for daughter Pip’s play Ache which opens at Circa on Saturday night.
Despite the fact that our theatre scene is so lively, prolific, varied and vigorous, I see little national pride in what our theatre is achieving.

I can almost certainly tell you what I was doing right this minute 40 years ago: sitting in my study in Karori typing on my Olivetti working on what was probably the third draft of my first play, which would eventually be called Glide Time.
How come I was writing a play? Because I had been at the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre’s playwrights’ conference in Connecticut at the insistence of and with help from Robert Lord.
That workshop was a big deal. Top US theatre people were involved each year (that year, Meryl Streep and Christopher Lloyd) and it usually produced a couple of plays that went on to Broadway.
I hadn’t intended to write a play for the stage — TV was still my ambition — but seeing what was on display, what received lavish praise there, I had that light-bulb moment: “I could do that. I will write a play.”
But — and this is the point where I have come full circle. The reason I was in New York, and had been in London the previous three months, was entirely due to a grant from the then QEII Arts Council to travel to England and the US to further my experience in writing.
So I thank Creative NZ for tonight’s award, and the QEII Arts Council for the one all those years ago. It led to Glide Time and changed my life.
Bernadette Hall’s acceptance speech is online here. With all due respect to Roger, she had perhaps the best line of the night, presumably improvised as it is not in the official version. When thanking her husband, she said, “There is nothing worse than someone becoming a writer.”  

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Waikato Times letter of the week #58

This is from the edition of Tuesday 27 October, and appears to be in response to this story from the 16 October edition. As always, spelling, punctuation, grammar and logic are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times.
Sad event
Sculpture commemorating war horses killed during World War I, what a disgrace this sculpture will be to commemorate such a sad happening. No one in their right mind who respects horses would think of something so stupid.
It didn’t happen in modern times so why does Caiger believes something modern should be the subject.
Melba Morrow

Friday, October 16, 2015

On literary festivals

The always excellent Tauranga Arts Festival runs from Thursday 22 October to Sunday 1 November. The full programme is here. There is music (Julia Deans sings Joni Mitchell, Annie Crummer sings soul), theatre (Mei-Lin Te Puea Hansen’s The Mooncake and the Kumara, the Welsh Hireath) and a bunch of other stuff  I would really like to see.

There will also be some writers.

Siblings Mandy and Nicky Hager will talk about family ties, Harry Ricketts will talk about how to read a poem, Debra Daley will talk about her two recent historical novels, Christina Lamb – the biggest star of the festival – will talk about reporting from the war in Afghanistan (I gather this is nearly sold out so if you are interested, book tonight), Phil Jarratt, probably the second-biggest star, will talk about surfing, and then there is me.

Specifically, there is me talking about writers’ festivals with Stephanie Johnson and Claire Mabey, both of whom have run them. The blurb for the event – Sunday 25 October, 1pm, $15 don’t miss out! – says:

Being at a writers’ festival sounds a great deal for an author ... or does it?
In her latest novel, The Writers’ Festival, Stephanie Johnson possibly uses her own experiences, including as a founding board member of the Auckland Writers Festival, and at last year’s inaugural Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts in London. Claire Mabey, associate director of the Tauranga Arts Festival, was also at the London festival last year, as well as the renowned Hay-on-Wye and Edinburgh events.
What makes for a good festival and why are some festivals thought to treat their writers shabbily? Johnson and Mabey talk to Stephen Stratford.

Two good questions right there. Like Stephanie I was a founding board member of the Auckland Writers’ Festival (I served seven years, for what crime I do not know), and I have performed at one of Claire’s festivals (last year in Hamilton) as well as at others in Dunedin and Christchurch. So I know the territory and assume these events must be a good thing.

Possibly I am prejudiced from knowing too many authors, but I sometimes wonder why any reader would wish to meet a writer or listen to them bang on about themselves. Because that, frankly, is what writers do. Even the shy ones. So at some point in the proceedings I will ask the audience, “Why are you here?”

If any reader of QUQ can offer any suggestions for a more polite question I can ask of the panel or audience, I would be very grateful.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Waikato Times letter of the week #57

This is from the edition of Monday 12 October. As always, spelling, punctuation, grammar and logic are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times.
Single letter
Two of the most powerful words in the modern day English language are three letter words.
Fit & Fat. Fit – meaning healthy – correct size (clothing) – bout of illness coughing etc.
Fat – meaning plump, thick, oily, greasy substance etc.
It seems strange that these two words, of three English letters only, are different by three letters, i and a.
No other words are so closely the same yet directly opposite in the English language. Similar, yet different.
Ken Weldon