May 18, 2016

Fiona Farrell, Brian Turner and Joe Bennett in "Another country?" at AWF 2016

Is the South Island "another country"? Carolyn from Regional Collections knew there would be no one answer from the panellists at the eponymous AWF session, but also that all the answers would be interesting. She tells us about them here:

Brian Turner (photo: Declan Wong)
I joined the long queue of people waiting to hear Fiona Farrell, Brian Turner and Joe Bennett talk about what it is like being a South Islander in a country where they are a minority (only 23% of the population) with some trepidation - I was born and bred in Auckland, but know from living in Hamilton for 12 years that Aucklanders are often the butt of cruel jokes from those living south of the Bombay Hills, let alone the Mainland. However, I was eager to attend, largely due to a long-standing respect and love for the artistry and intelligence of Southern wordsmiths and artists. Moreover, as a teenager I found refuge, enlightenment and entertainment in the works of many Te Wai Pounamu writers including Ruth Dallas, Keri Hulme, Owen Marshall and Janet Frame.

The session commenced with a brief introduction by the chair, Jesse Mulligan (a Hamiltonian), followed by readings.

The first reader was Fiona Farrell, born in Oamaru but now predominantly living in Christchurch. She read an excerpt from her latest book, The Village at the Edge of the Empire (2015), which was shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. This factual work, the first of a planned two volumes of which the second will be fictional, looks at the rebuilding of a city (in this case Christchurch) and explores the themes of nostalgia and lost landscapes. She encouraged the audience to bask in the familiarity of local places like their corner dairy. She knows from bitter experience that you never know when they might be gone.

Brian Turner (born in Dunedin), poet, author, environmentalist and an expert in many fields including rabbiting, cycling, playing hockey (he played hockey for New Zealand in the 1960’s) and mountaineering – took the floor next. He is also by his own admission a political being and is not shy about chastising the North for its culpability in the ‘despoliation’ of the South in the name of progress (the proposal for increased daily helicopter landings on Mt. Tutoko Glacier and the trend towards lifestyle blocks were among those cited). He read an extract from his book: Boundaries: people and places of Central Otago and then quoted environmentalist Paul Kingsworth in The Guardian online (17 August 2009):

“Yet very few of us are prepared to look honestly at the message this reality is screaming at us: that the civilisation we are a part of is hitting the buffers at full speed, and it is too late to stop it. Instead, most of us – and I include in this generalisation much of the mainstream environmental movement – are still wedded to a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present….”

Turner also referenced A short history of progress by Ronald Wright from The Massey Lectures (2004) in which the author discusses the impact of technology, population and consumerism on nature. In closing, Turner quoted from Margaret Atwood’s Payback: “Nature is calling in her debt, and nature calls last.”

The final reader was Joe Bennett, born in England, but who has lived in New Zealand since 1987 and who now resides, with his dog, in Lyttelton. He continued Turner's theme, asking the audience to indicate if they believed that the human species would be around in a million years. No one raised their hand.

Bennett believes that the South is not visceral to home, but that through reading and literature we know we are not alone. He read from the short story ‘Cabernet Sauvignon with my brother’ by Owen Marshall.

After the readings, throughout the session, Jesse Mulligan acted as Devil’s advocate, asking the panel a series of provocative questions, including:

"Why don’t you move to Auckland?"

Turner replied that he panicked too easily to live in Auckland, and that although he enjoyed walking around cities he needed to hear the silence and sounds of the open country and breathe in proper air. For him two of the most affecting words in the English language are love and home, and home is where the heart is. Fiona Farrell commented that she loved the diversity of New Zealand and that she split her time between Christchurch and a beach in the Banks Peninsula. She also mentioned her strong bond with Oamaru and in particular the limestone cliffs, which had deep historical significance and gave her a sense of belonging. Lastly Joe Bennett noted that it had never crossed his mind to move to Auckland, sharing an entertaining story of how he came to live and work as a teacher in the South Island.

Discussion continued about the unbalanced portrayal of the South Island in the media – that it was often depicted in a patronising manner as a beautiful place, not often visited and that even the word “South” had negative connotations – as it is always referring to down (Down South). One of the panellists mentioned how one of our most widely-read national magazines failed to properly cover the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquake, instead focusing on public health and other miscellaneous issues.

"Is there a South Island personality?"

Brian Turner began by saying yes and referred to the poem ‘Country Pub”. He described Southerners as being more taciturn than their northern counterparts, and more pessimistic, but genuine – they listen with sincerity and are more humble and less expressive (although he did concede that some of these expressions can relate to other people besides those from the South Island).  Later he read out examples from a list given to him by his son which include a few disparaging characteristics his son attributes to Aucklanders, such as that Aucklanders are condescending and disconnected…. Hmm…. 

Fiona Farrell then talked of clichés about the South Island, and gave the example of television advertisements that use the image of the South as a natural paradise to push their products. She mentioned one cheese advert in particular, where the beautiful lake depicted was in reality a toxic wasteland in need of urgent care. She added that there is a myth about the South which is comforting to urbanites, but that we must all fight to keep the clichés a reality.

As always Joe Bennett added a bit of humour and common ground to the discussion. He began his response with a few rhetorical questions. Are South Islanders grumpier than North Islanders? Are the two islands becoming more homogenous? He believes that New Zealand is less dogmatic than some countries about what our distinct characteristics are, and he believes that it is not necessary a bad thing. New Zealand is an immigrant, multicultural country, as evidenced by Auckland City. He said he did not want to make generalisations about the North or South, believing there were no distinctive differences between them.

The discussion moved to Southland art and artists, and exhibitions important to them. Graham Sydney and Tom Fields were mentioned several times, and also the rock drawings on the limestone outcrops in South Canterbury. Jesse Mulligan asked what the South Island offers the artist. Fiona Farrell talked about the positive impact of low rents in Dunedin and the resulting artistic output. Joe Bennett mentioned that he didn’t have a particular artist in mind but mused on the possibility of someone capturing the vista of Burke’s Pass in painting.

The session concluded with questions from the floor and it was here that Brian Turner confided that it was James K. Baxter‘s poetry that inspired him to start writing.

At the end of the session, Jesse Mulligan asked the audience if they thought you could still be a Southerner and live in Auckland. Many raised their hands.

I stepped out into the familiar space that is Aotea Square feeling a little chastened, enlightened, challenged, and irritated. Not bad for a one hour gathering.

-- Carolyn


Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 18:32
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