Once we were rivals

By Stephen Jewell

The first festival celebrating Australasian writers opens next week in London. The line-up even includes a Brit or two, writes Stephen Jewell

Stephanie Johnson. Photo / Richard Robinson
Stephanie Johnson. Photo / Richard Robinson

Stroll past King's College on The Strand and you can't help but notice the striking window display, made up of pictures of famous alumni, including Florence Nightingale, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bloc Party's Kele Okereke.

But next week the London university will play host to some illustrious figures from much further afield when the inaugural Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts is held within its grounds. Boasting an impressive guest list of more than 130 authors, musicians, filmmakers and other performers, the three-day event hopes to bridge the gap that sometimes exists between the two countries' artistic communities.

"It's almost as if there's an invisible wall between Australia and New Zealand from a cultural point of view in terms of getting writers from New Zealand over to Australia and vice versa," says festival director Jon Slack. "Eleanor Catton has this great anecdote that to get published in Australia, she had to first get published in Britain. The original idea was to raise the profile of Australian and New Zealand culture over here and to explore the relationship between New Zealand, Australia and Britain. But something that has happened on the side of that is highlighting this need to increase the collaboration between Australia and New Zealand.

So lots of people have started talking, saying we should work together more. The willpower is there and, hopefully, this will be one of many things that will nudge that forward."

Born in Adelaide to a New Zealand father and an Australian mother, Slack spent part of his childhood near Whangarei. Having been involved with London's South East Asian Literary Festival, he believed focusing on his two homelands was a natural step.

"I didn't have a goal, I just wanted to talk to people about what I was doing here," he says. "I wanted to establish something that would help me connect more because I realised I was becoming increasingly out of touch with what was going on back home."

Having lived in England for more than a decade, working on the festival has helped Slack rediscover his Kiwi roots. "Since the whole thing got under way, I've been sharing information with my dad and I've been learning more about what he knows, such as his Maori connections. I didn't know that he can speak Maori really well because he grew up with Maori people. This is all really surprising stuff.

"One of the sessions we're doing is with Peter Alsop, who helped put together Selling the Dream, a beautifully illustrated book of posters that Tourism New Zealand used to sell New Zealand to the world over the past 40 years. It puts the relationship between New Zealand and Britain into a fascinating social context. I sent some of those images to my dad and he was like, 'I grew up with that poster!"'

Other New Zealanders attending the festival include Fay Weldon (who has long been based in Britain), Stephanie Johnson, Fleur Adcock, Paula Morris, Ian Wedde, Witi Ihimaera and C.K. Stead, who will appear on stage alongside his daughters Charlotte Grimshaw and Margaret Stead. Graphic novelist Sarah Laing will hold a workshop and will talk about biographical comics alongside Australian Evie Wyld.

"Someone was asking me for a list of the New Zealand-only events that we're doing but I was only able to find about three," says Slack. "The vast majority of the programme is really about joining all that together and where possible we've tried to bring in non-New Zealand and Australian voices as well."

Along with Australians such as Clive James, John Pilger, Tim Winton and Kathy Lette, the festival will also feature contributions from British talents like Nicholas Shakespeare, Val McDermid and Skyfall actor Ben Whishaw, who will take part in the closing night performance of the biblical poem, Song of Solomon, which will be set to music composed by his Australian partner, Mark Bradshaw.

"Anyone who is in this festival has a connection, whether it's that they've visited either country, like Margaret Drabble, who was in Adelaide and Wellington earlier this year," says Slack. "She is actually a huge fan of Janet Frame, so that's why she is in that event. We're trying to explore what Australia and New Zealand mean to British people so it's really important we don't just pop famous people in there for the sake of it."


Festival

What: The inaugural Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts

Where and when: Kings College, The Strand, London, May 29-June 1; Going Bush Festival of Short Plays, Bush Theatre, Shepherd's Bush, May 23-24

Web: http://ausnzfestival.com/

- NZ Herald

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