Tuesday, May 15, 2012

AWRF diary

I went to Auckland for the weekend to perform at the Auckland Writers’ and Reader’s Festival: once as chair of Snowdrops: A.D. Miller, just me and a total stranger on the main stage of the Aotea Centre (seats 2256) for an hour; and then the next day on a panel with Jenny Pattrick, the best-selling historical novelist, and Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5 who is now a successful thriller writer and last year was chair of the Man Booker committee that shortlisted Snowdrops.

Lunch with four poets and a blogger. Karyn Hay was supposed to join us but she emailed to say she would be a no-show. Bitter disappointment all round. I explained to Peter Bland, “She does this a lot. She’s a lunch-teaser.” Other topics of conversation: work in progress; a mutual writer friend who has gone mad; the works of Geoff Dyer; the excellence of Dan Poynton’s recordings of Lilburn’s piano music and the new Naxos CD of Ross Harris’s Second and Third Symphonies; ARD Fairburn; and, as always, smut.

I went to the afternoon session on “Broken Britain” with Dame Stella Rimington, A.D. (Andy) Miller and Geoff Dyer, with Robin Congreve chairing, mainly so I could get a sense of what Stella and Andy were like. I took a seat on the aisle in the back row and had to leap up eight times in a row as eight attractive women came in, each one going “M-wah m-wah” at me. I do not get this response from the other mothers when I do the school run.

Andy seemed harmless so after the book-signing session I introduced myself and we arranged to meet later for dinner. I took him to Coco’s Cantina because I like it there and because I was pretty sure I would be greeted with a kiss by Damaris, the beautiful co-owner, which would impress him. I was, and it did. We hit it off, had a great time then went back to the hotel for more intensive preparation for Saturday’s session, i.e. another drink.

Also at Coco’s were Jeffrey Eugenides, Geoff Dyer, Anthony McCarten, Sebastian Barry and several other famous writers. It’s quite the Les Deux Magots of K Road.  

I was pacing nervously in the foyer of the Aotea Centre. Fergus Barrowman, who is mostly harmless, asked why. I said I was about to chair an event and, when chairing, I try to stay out of the way and let the star shine though I do try to be entertaining: “But I’m not as funny as I think I am.” 

Fergus said kindly, “Don’t worry, you’re funny enough.” I thought, brilliant, I can use that: “Stephen Stratford – he’s funny enough.”

The session went off well. We had a Q&A for 20 minutes, Andy read from the novel for 10 minutes, then another 15 minutes of Q&A before questions from the floor. This is the terrifying part – you don’t know who is out there. Nevil Gibson had had to turn the mike off when a loony began ranting in the session he chaired on Consumptionomics just before us. We were lucky: no bozos. But an hour is an awfully long time.

My second event, the panel on book awards. Stella Rimington is not harmless at all but she was great – friendly, funny and super-smart. As are Jenny Pattrick and our chair, Sam Elworthy of AUP, so it was a very relaxed discussion.

There was one weird question from the floor for Stella: “Given what you did in the miners’ strike in 1984, what does the literary community think of you?” She started to explain why it was totally legit for MI5 to get involved (a foreign power was funding locals who said publicly they wanted to overthrow the elected government) but stopped and said, “Why am I talking about this? It’s ancient history. What has it to do with book awards? And what is the literary community? Who are they?”

There is a lot to be said for a brisk Englishwoman of a certain age.

The liveliest part of the discussion was about the importance or otherwise of shortlists. This has been misreported elsewhere, so I’ll do a separate post later on what was actually said.

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