After the awards were presented in Auckland on Friday night, my wife observed that the winning authors and books represented four of New Zealand’s major ethnic groups: Maori, Pacific Island, Chinese and Southern Man.
It was a good night, the best and by far the most glamorous book awards I have been to. Four hundred people, half in black tie and the other half in posh frocks, and the Great Room of the Langham Hotel looked spectacular
The evening was slightly hijacked by Tuhoe, who had been allocated two minutes but took about 20. There was singing, a long speech in Maori then a brief version in English; when Judith Binney’s Encircled Lands won its category, there was a haka. It must have been a nightmare for the organisers and for Jennifer Ward-Lealand, the unflappable MC – the final award had to be made by 10.30 p.m. to make the late-night news – but I thought it was great. There was a lovely tone to it all. Often at occasions like this the Maori component feels tacked-on for appearances’ sake, but this was the real deal, a totally Maori moment, totally on their terms. You’d have to be obstinately monocultural to object.
The same goes for Pip Desmond’s acceptance of her Best First Book award for Trust, which is about women in gangs. She too had been allocated two minutes but took a lot longer. When she came up on stage she had a support group of five of the women in the book. Talk about staunch – and one of them had a guitar so we knew what was coming. After Pip finished thanking everyone, they sang beautifully – in Maori, of course, and in three-part harmony, with Nicola Legat of Random House (on stage as the publisher) gamely singing along with them. It was a wonderful moment, and again only a curmudgeon would object. It must have been a huge challenge for the five women to be there in such an alien environment – they were a long way from home in every way.
These interruptions were unscheduled and unpredictable so it is a tribute to the organisers, and to Jennifer, that they were absorbed so smoothly into the evening’s programme. I feel quite privileged to have been there to witness them.
UPDATE: There is a more official account of the evening from Booksellers NZ here, with some great photos. As you can see, Brian Turner scrubbed up well, and MC Jennifer Ward-Lealand scrubbed up spectacularly. Lovely photos of the Best First Book winners too.