Janet McAllister: Remarkable and moving

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David Mitchell. Photo / Bloomberg
David Mitchell. Photo / Bloomberg

Ah, the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival. A little flamboyance, a little politics, a little enjoyable outrage, all contained and served up tidily in bite-sized, non-threatening, hour-long pieces.

Food critic A.A. Gill may have hogged the headlines, but the speaker who gets my vote as the Most Entertaining was David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas. He was entirely self-deprecating, in a dry, witty Scottish way, rather than being bilious like ol' Gill, ol' Acerbics Anonymous.

"My mum did the illustration of the fan in here," Mitchell said, flipping pages of his latest, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. "It's a bit Spinal Tap to get your mum to do the artwork - but it's free."

Note to audio book peddlers: if you record Mitchell reading his own work, you can charge extra for his convoluted, humorous commentary. He read a bit which included the unplanned consonance of a "guard" and a "garden". "Ooh, that's a rough sentence," he remarked. "Oh well, too late now."

This was at the Commonwealth Writers Prize session, where Mitchell shared the dais with Aminatta Forna, who read a rather cliched excerpt from her Sierra Leone book The Memory of Love, and Our Very Own Craig Cliff, whose enjoyable Listener short story I mentioned a few weeks back.

Cliff gets my Best Dressed vote as his interesting T-shirt (metallic blue stripes on black) matched the colours of his book, A Man Melting. Part of his excerpt was about living overseas: "It seemed a kind of magic to live in a world without Paul Holmes." Hearty chuckles all around.

My vote for Most Heartfelt goes to the remarkable, admirable idealist Izzeldin Abuelaish. Three of his eight children were killed by Israeli missiles smashing into his house in Gaza just over two years ago. I'm told he was rather didactic and long-winded in the later Peace Please shared session but his individual session was very moving.

Big Issues like Israel/Palestine are often discussed at book festivals but, as a listener, one mostly leaves such sessions in despair, thinking, "Great, my consciousness has been raised, but what can I do?" In contrast, Abuelaish was able to move from broad brushstroke ideas - "the safety, security and dignity of both peoples [Israelis and Palestinians] is linked" - to urging us that peace begins at home, with people we see every day. "Spend as much time as you can with the people you love ... talk to your neighbours." And, the implication was, not just the ones who look like you. Such platitudes take on new, urgent meaning when spoken by a father who has seen his daughter decapitated in front of him for political reasons.

Yes, he actually said, "the children are the future", successfully wresting the phrase back off Whitney Houston to restore its significance. It was enough to make me quietly shed a tear into my latte.

Meanwhile, the South Pacific session with journalists Michael Field and Barbara Dreaver and academic Steven Ratuva was a much-needed reminder that problematic regimes are also found much closer to home. There is no freedom of press in Fiji. Why are we not more concerned about events in our own backyard?

Then the hour was up. Time to move on. Although I'm not sure this timetabled containment is what Abuelaish meant with his folksy wisdom: "Life is like a bicycle. To keep balanced we must keep moving." Hopefully a little new understanding also moves with us.

- NZ Herald

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