Thursday, May 20, 2010

John Freeman on Shrinking the World

There are many sensible ways to prepare for chairing a session at the Auckland Writers’ and Readers’ Festival with a big-name international author whom you have never met. Staying up drinking until 1 a.m. on Saturday night with him and a bunch of other writers and publishers, and then going upstairs to write your introduction and some questions for your joint Sunday afternoon session – which by now is only 12 hours away – is not one of them.

My session is with John Freeman, new editor of the literary magazine Granta and author of Shrinking the World: the 4000-year story of how email came to rule our lives.

I have done similar events with big stars many times before – one-on-ones with Ian Rankin and Harlan Coben, panel sessions with Sarah Dunant, Mark Billingham, Jeffrey Deaver and others. So I am calm. It’s just that one likes to have the format established beforehand – what will the mix be between reading, interview and audience questions?

One also likes to have a sense of the author, if only by email. The internet tells me that John Freeman is an American, 35, literary, bright and thoughtful. This could mean he is earnest, a bore. Can he talk? Not all authors can. Does he have a sense of humour? Not all authors do.

But Freeman has not replied to my emails. For the first time I haven’t a clue what the talent is like. So I am not calm at all. To be honest, I have the shakes. I have lunch with Kevin Ireland on Friday: he says, “I have never seen you like this,” and pours me a bottle of Coleraine, which helps a bit.

So I attend John Freeman’s earlier sessions at the festival. The first is on Saturday morning with Ben Naparstek of Oz mag The Monthly and Fergus Barrowman of VUP. Fergus is, as always, enviably relaxed and fluent; Naparstek is 23 and hence not so interesting but I am pleased that he says he wants to make his magazine less predictable. I loved it in its first two years when it was unpredictable and not doctrinaire but then – perhaps because Robert Manne took over – it got boring.

Anyway, I am watching John Freeman for clues. He is asked a question. His answer, the first words he utters at the festival: “I’d be a fucking moron if I did.”

Right, I think, we’re OK. Later, I meet him at the swell party he throws in the hotel bar and discover that not only does he say fuck but also he drinks, smokes and has a sense of humour. YES! He is one of us.

But I do not relax. At 1 a.m. (when a second whisky seems a good idea, I know I have had enough) I go upstairs and write my introduction for our session and a dozen questions and fall asleep about 2.30 a.m.

At 8.15 a.m. my mobile rings. The ringtone is invigorating, the opening bars of Frank Zappa’s “Willie the Pimp”: my wife is downstairs, having flown in after last night’s dairy industry awards in Rotorua.

Showtime. 2.30 p.m. Once one is on-stage the nerves drop away and one is in the moment. So despite the fiddly nature of the microphone headsets, John and I chat away like two relaxed people. Yeah, right. But it’s like sincerity – if you can fake that, you can fake anything.

What strikes me is that the book is promoted as being about email but it isn’t. Most of it is a history of communications with much fascinating detail, e.g, how newspapers went daily only after the invention of the telegraph, which enabled instant reporting from overseas. The last chapter has a 10-step programme for managing your email addiction – it is all useful and sensible stuff, though I wonder now if this was the publisher’s idea because the penultimate chapter, “Manifesto for a Slow Communication Movement”, is the main deal.

I read out a short passage from this chapter which I hope John won’t mind me using here:
We will die, that is certain; and everyone we have ever loved and cared about will die, too, sometimes – heartbreakingly – before us. Being someone else, travelling the world, making new friends gives us a temporary reprieve from this knowledge, which is spared most of the animal kingdom. Busyness numbs the pain of this awareness, but it can never totally submerge it. Given that our days are limited, our hours precious, we have to decide what we want to do, what we want to say, what and who we care about, and how we allocate our time to these things within the limits that do not and cannot change. In short, we need to slow down.
John is not interested in talking about how to manage your inbox but he is very interested in talking about this slow communication, along the lines of the Slow Food movement, and how face-to-face contact, or just a phone call, is vastly better than Facebook. The book is really about how we should live.

It is great getting him to talk about this deeper stuff, just as Rick Gekoski talks about death and philosophy in his session afterwards.

Later, I wish I had remembered this quote from Dr Johnson, that “a book should teach us to enjoy life or to endure it”. Shrinking the World is presented as the latter type of book but I think it is the former.


Phil said...

Was the Coleraine OK?

Seriously - I have never had a Te Mata that I liked.

Keri H said...

One of the original Coleraines (Te Mata ur1996?) was bloody good.

Or it could be, after all the bubbles etc. on NY 2000, our reliable taste buds were sleep.

The only other one I've drunk since was treacally.

Fergus said...

Yes, THIS is what we really want to talk about!

Phil said...

Of course, the wine consumption reference was directly related to: " ..our days are limited, our hours precious, we have to decide what we want to do, what we want to say, what and who we care about, and how we allocate our time to these things .."

Stephen Stratford said...

Phil asks, "Was the Coleraine OK?" Fergus too wants to know.

All I can say is, it was the 2006 and it was . . . nice. No, it was fantastic.

I have had a few, from the outstanding 1991 to the great 1998 (a magnum was a wedding present) and a few since. This one was perhaps too young to call but I liked it very much. Can't do the adjectives, sorry. Kevin, as the poet at the table, was lyrical in its praises but for some reason I can't recall the lyrics.

It was that kind of weekend.

There are more and better-informed Coleraine reviews from Sue Courtney at

Fergus said...

Mmmm, sounds good. Elizabeth and I are up to the Wairarapa tomorrow for lunch and poetry at the Gladstone Vineyard, and dinner with friends. We know the wine will be good. But we're going to take a promising Okanagan Valley pinot noir we brought home a couple of years ago, to provide a little competition...