May 14, 2012

AWRF 2012: McCahon and the Micronaut

Martin Edmond and Gregory O’Brien illuminate the pilgrimages undertaken to get to the heart of two New Zealand artists abroad. In Dark Night: Walking with McCahon (2011) Edmond retraces McCahon’s steps on the 1984 night he went missing in Sydney, a vivid reconstruction knitted together with Edmond’s imagination and intimate knowledge of his adopted hometown. To write A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy (2011), O’Brien and his family upped sticks to spend three months in Taranaki-born Percy’s London home, where he created many of his extraordinary and best-loved illustrations. -- from the AWRF 2012 brochure.

I have to say that there were times when the writers at the Festival seemed to be playing that game called Statues we used to play as kids; you know, the one where everyone runs around and then someone yells “Stop” and everyone freezes, then everyone runs around again and freezes again, each time in different clumps, and so on and so on. So we had, for example, Martin Edmond, who besides running his solo workshop on Saturday, talked with Gregory O’Brien and Peter Simpson on Friday morning about writing about NZ artists abroad, and then on Sunday afternoon with Anthony McCarten and Anne Kennedy about being an expat, McCarten having talked about his new book the day before with Lily Richards, while Anne Kennedy appeared with Greg O’Brien but not with Martin at the Open Mike event and again at the tribute to Hone Tuwhare, as well as with neither of them at “What the Dickens?”

How well these re-clumpings worked depended a bit on the people involved, how “event-genic” they were, and what connective had been contrived for them. For Emily Perkins and Jeffrey Eugenides, their joint appearance after their solo events, nominally about the future of the novel, was like a well-rehearsed scene in a drawing room comedy. For Gregory O’Brien and Martin Edmond, I don't know, they are both such un-persona people, and their books, despite being about other people, so personal and original, that the joint format hit me as more of a hindrance to getting to the heart of the matter than a help, with Peter Simpson valiantly alternating his, and our, attention.

Who had managed to intimidate the seemingly hard-to-intimidate Peter Simpson? I saw this man in action, here at the library, when the data projector unexpectedly failed just as he was about to present his beautiful book on Leo Bensemann (Fantastica: the world of Leo Bensemann). Every slide appeared as if seen through a green lens, and the IT guy we called just couldn’t understand why that wasn’t okay, after all they were just a lot of landscapes, so it took some time to spur him to action. Peter extemporised 45 minutes of amusing recollections and anecdotes until a new projector was found.

Quite a contrast to the Peter Simpson I saw on stage here, sounding rather like a school-master. “The format will be…” he intoned at the start in his rich baritone, and did he ever keep to it, to the point of cutting Martin Edmond off in the middle of his final line. I guess I never will know how Martin thinks the Australians see the NZ psyche in the setting of Australia.

The last time I saw Martin Edmond on stage at a Festival event, I remember using the word “rumpled” about him - not in the sense of unironed clothes or anything, just an expression of the contrast between him and his taut interviewer Peter Wells. Looking back I think a better word might have been “accidental”.But at “McCahon and the Micronaut” he filed out with Peter Simpson and Greg O’Brien looking positively, how can I describe it, springy, walking very upright, in tennis shoes and a white tee with what I think I recognised as the nzepc Richard Killeen seahorse on the front.

Of his book Dark Night he proudly said, “The reviews of the book said ‘This is a flimsy pretext for a book’. I wish they had said ‘audacious’. I didn’t think it was flimsy. I thought it was audacious.”

And then he told this wonderful story:

“Maggie and I flew in around 3 and decided to go have a glass of wine and a cigarette on K Road. As we were sitting there, three Maori guys, clearly living on the street, ragged and fearsome, came down the street and stopped at our table. ‘Got a cigarette, bro?’ I gave them cigarettes and two of them went off, but the third guy stayed and shook my hand. He said, ‘I’m drifting. I don’t know how to go back home. I had a car accident, lost two of my kids.’ Dark Night is a book about homelessness, and I thought about the Maori guy and I thought he probably would find his way back home, though he didn’t know it. My book in some way is to bring Colin McCahon home.”

Greg O’Brien recalled: “18 months after Graham Percy’s death we went to stay in his apartment in Wimbledon.” “Our friendship continued to grow” as he dug through boxes of thousands of drawings. He worked on the book in the study where Graham Percy’s ashes, spectacles and cellphone reside in a scale replica of the apartment, where he and his wife Mari had lived for twenty-five years, commissioned by his daughter. He found evidence that Graham Percy, during his last years, had used Google Earth to revisit places he’d been when young. A paddock he had walked across in New Zealand.

The AWRF brochure speaks of these two authors as having undertaken “pilgrimages”. Well done, blurb writer, whoever you are. I think it's a good choice of words, implying as it does humility, and a journey without conditions.

Gregory O'Brien concluded, “I hope that Graham lives in the book we made for him.”

And Martin Edmond summed things up thus for Peter Simpson:

(Simpson) “Did the process of writing this book change your view of McCahon?”

“I don’t know if it changed it, but it transformed it. I don’t look at it from the outside now".

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:00


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