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Why we do this

I (Claire Mabey, NWF programme manager) was lucky enough to spend a chunk of Winter in sunny Europe/UK this year. Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall and Edinburgh Book Festival in August were two of the highlights… and a reminder of why we make these events, bringing great and like minds together.

Port Eliot is in St Germans, a Cornish village of one pub and one post office shop, and a rather large Estate called Port Eliot House. The House has been lived in for over 1000 years and believed to be the oldest continually inhabited dwelling in the UK. And every Summer, 6000 people come with tents, yurts, campervans and costumes for the Port Eliot Festival.

The 2016 line-up included writers Chris Cleave, Michael Murpurgo, A L Kennedy, (Ali Smith got sick and cancelled unfortunately), Dawn French, Olivia Laing, Helen Dunmore, Kit de Waal, Max Porter, Miranda Sawyer, Noel Fielding, Sara Pascoe, and Kim Gordon (founding member of Sonic Youth), among many others.

Port Eliot is a fantastic mixture of writers, music, dress-ups, food, booze, and activities like wild running and swimming, or foraging, or nautical rope necklace making. It’s very Cornwall.


Port Eliot lake at dawn. Don’t ask me why I was awake.

The writers sessions were mostly going on between two quite small and one quite large tents, all close together. This meant that you could quickly scuttle between them, and have time to stop at either the gin tent or the beer bar between times.

Chris Cleave held his audience spellbound, for an hour, by himself. I can’t give anything away here because, in case you didn’t already know, he’s giving the keynote address, and a masterclass, at the National Writers Forum. What I can say is that we are extraordinarily lucky to have this writer in New Zealand –he is a captivating and moving speaker. Writers and humans alike are going to find what he has to say to be incredibly valuable to your own craft and practice, as well as for contemplating what is going on in this world today.

For Michael Murpurgo, I arrived very early. So had about 200 others – adults and children. By the time he was due on stage the 300-seat tent was jammed, kids were laying in the aisles and adults were blocking up every spare entry/exit way. Chris Cleave did a beautiful introduction, and then up Michael bounced up from his chair. I can’t do any kind of justice to the hour that followed but I can say that Michael Murpurgo is the kind of talent that makes you cry of joy and sadness simultaneously, who makes you question humanity but adore it at the same time. He’s a master speaker – equally entertaining the little people and the large with stories from his life as a teacher, writer and philanthropist. He’s wickedly funny, too.

Listening to Michael Murpurgo and watching the crowd, transfixed, fully brought home the power of stories, and the real value of this kind of live experience. The slice of advice I scribbled down was ‘tell the story you want to tell as if you’re telling it to your best friend.’

Michael Murpurgo

Michael Murpurgo schooling us all.

A L Kennedy was sharp, funny and powerful. For A L, writing is ‘making shit up, what you do when you’re asleep or under 5, then re-writing is making sense of that dream so it’s coherent for someone else’. She’s also a prodigious planner – taking three years to nut out her latest, Booker long-listed novel, Serious Sweet.

Kim Gordon was the surprise hit of the Port Eliot Festival for me. I’m not a huge fan of Sonic Youth, but I was surrounded by many of them (fans, not Sonic Youth). Kim is a babe. At 61 years old she is bold, calm and experimental. She talked about herself as a visual artist, and not a musician. She talked about not wanting to be pigeonholed and needing to find the most ‘outward’ place in the art world – the political, and the punk. The statement that stayed with me was: ‘Carving out time is harder for women with kids – harder than for men – because making art is seen as a luxury’.

At Edinburgh Book Festival (that magical place where writers, books and readers all hang out in Charlotte Square with watery coffee and canvas book bags), Carol Birch said that prosecco is the only way she gets through writing a synopsis, which she likened to doing her taxes (for more tips on getting this job done, go to The Perfect Pitch session at the Forum).

Lionel Shriver was on fire in conversation with Ruth Wishart about Shriver’s latest book The Mandibles. The theme of the hour was prophecy – with Ruth slightly in awe of Lionel’s astute projections into a future that’s increasingly looking like today (The Mandibles postures a future in which the USA is a pariah state, and Americans are running for the borders to jump over to Mexico…).

Lionel Shriver

I arrived too late to get a good seat. But that’s Lionel Shriver and Ruth Wishart.

The poet, Alice Oswald was mesmerising as she described the process of creating her latest volume, Falling Awake. For the poem called ‘Tithonus’ (one of the lovers of Eos, goddess of dawn), she rose before dawn, armed with a flask of coffee, to immerse herself in the exact 46 minutes of the sun rising. Oswald spends time with her subject matter – the fields, insects, skies and grasses surrounding her house in the South of England. The bulk of the session was a continuous reading of 8 poems from the volume – the images from each flawlessly dropped into our brains via her rhythmic recitals and rich voice. She explained how she makes her own lined paper – with curvy lines, not straight, so as to plot sound and intonation. Oswald hopes to be a grasshopper one day.

Travelling around visiting festivals is something I hope everyone gets to do at some point – but possibly even better is having great writers come to you. The National Writers Forum is a gathering – of book brains from Aotearoa and from around the world. These things can be a life-changing experience – listening to how someone else navigates their craft, their world, can have a profound effect. Looking forward to that!



mxb151113-krsh0303I’m currently listening to a RadioLab episode called ‘Debatable‘. It’s about a young, black American college student who is coerced into taking up debating class and ends up at the national competition, winning and changing everything. This is really an aside, but give it a listen – it’s good healthy discussion on the merits of debate …

The National Writers Forum in September is starring a rip-roaring debate involving some of the sharpest minds in the country. Among them are Toby Manhire, Michele A’Court and Paula Morris. We’ve tasked them with battling through words and wit the proposition that New Zealand books need special treatment. In bookshops, in e-stores, in discourse and in life.

You’ll find out on the night who is arguing what and with whom. See you there with war paint and bells on.

Photo: Toby Manhire at LitCrawl 2015 conducting a LitQuiz. Photo by Matt Bialostocki.


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