Editor's Insight: Books are now festival fare for the Woodstock generation

The Auckland Writers Festival is like walking into a radicals' dinner party 40 years later.

If you think book festivals are only for listeners – specifically, those of RNZ National and readers of the weekly magazine – you would be right.

Sitting in on some of the sessions at the Auckland Writers Festival was like wandering into a radicals’ dinner party, 40 or even 50 years on. A kind of Woodstock for the reading generation.

A mere mention of the word “Trump” raises more than a chuckle or cheer. An exception proved to be former newspaper editor and pop musician Karl du Fresne, whose session on American place names in hit parade tunes (Mendocino to Memphis) was rudely interrupted by a rambling rave posing as a question.

“I’m here to talk about music. I’m not an expert on American politics,” he said, as the woman quickly left to hisses of “you’re in the wrong session.”

That might well have been the one called O Canada, a conversation among two writers and a professor. The smugness was overt whenever a political point was raised.

Much was made of the participants’ outsider status and the lack of a Canadian identity. As a country that welcomes immigrants, it turns out some are mighty ungrateful. Of course, they like the freedom, socialised medicine, state-funded education, rent controls and social justice.

But not, apparently, those who paid for and created it. Asked what holds Canada together, with its tensions between Anglos and French, the status of First Nations people and fears of the Trumpians south of the border, the simple answer from one was: maple syrup.

Biggest applause
The proposition that this immigrant-friendly Canada was “built on stolen land” received the biggest applause from an audience that plainly was not made up of immigrants from Asia or the Middle East.

More than a few murmurs of approval also came from references to “hatred seeping across the border” and that being Canadian was “not about being nice or giving into despair.”

Canadian authors must be popular at writers’ festivals around the world as they spend more time away from their country than at home.

The Canadian identity issue also popped up at a session of outsiders in China where two of the panellists were of Chinese descent but not born there.

Vancouver, we were told, is now 35% Chinese and 50% Asian if South Asians are included. Auckland at 30% is only a decade or so behind with the familiar features of high house prices and immigrants investing mainly in real estate because it's easier than engaging in the wider business culture.

Erudite session
Canadians were thankfully absent from AN Wilson’s sessions, which are always a highlight of any festival. Wilson (first name Andrew) is unrepentantly a “fogey” – a slice of England’s intellectual elite that values learning, culture and erudition while moving easily among academia, media and politics.

Wilson has written a book and a half each year for the past four decades, equally made up of fiction and non-fiction. He is a regular in The Spectator and his comments in a recent contribution were thrown back at him; notably that Tories call Prime Minister Theresa May “mummy” and why Britons flourish under “warrior queens.”

His account of the reforming zeal of the Victorians counterpointed with his frustration at today’s bureaucratic version of the welfare state.

When Charles Dickens exposed the appalling state of Yorkshire schools in Nicholas Nickleby, it took just a few years before they were cleaned up.

By contrast, the child abuse inquiry in England has gone on for years with little to show for the tens of millions of pounds it has cost so far. Only judges and lawyers have benefited.

Abuse is a concern of Wilson’s – he was packed off at seven to a school (Rugby) where corporal punishment was endemic.

The spiegeltent at the Auckland Writers Festival

In an hour, Wilson explained why he wrote a biography of Iris Murdoch (and this article in The Spectator) – to counter the Alzheimer's-ridden image of her in the film Iris (a sin also committed in The Iron Lady) – and revealed the weaknesses of CS Lewis’ Christianity.

In a forthcoming book, Wilson will court more controversy by exposing Charles Darwin as the father of eugenics and the irrelevance of his theory of evolution in the post-genetics age (a book that won’t impress the anti-GM Greens, either).

Eugenics also surfaced in the weekend’s most sobering session featuring Norwegian-born, Swedish-raised Steve Sem-Sandberg, another non-sensitive new age guy,

He discusses his forensic Nazi-era novels about the Lodz ghetto (The Emperor of Lies) and the Am Spiegelgrund clinic near Vienna that was used for experiments, torture and murder of some 800 disabled or non-Aryan children (The Chosen Ones).

Sem-Sandberg refuses to be drawn into moral arguments, preferring his chilling accounts to stand as those of one with no emotional involvement. As a resident of Vienna, he brings new meaning to the role of outsiders, particularly who debate self-absorbed identity issues of Canada.

Disclaimer: The Auckland Writers Festival spanned more than 130 events and some 200 participating writers; the above account is necessarily highly selective.  

Festival facts: Attendance records were broken with more than 70,000 seats filled over six days. Among them were some 5700 students, who came from throughout the country for special sessions. Between 2012 and 2016, attendances has risen from 24,000 to 65,000. No figures were given on the number of books sold but at least one warehouse would have been emptied.

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