Writers Festival: Peter Alsop's infectious enthusiasm

By Janet McAllister

Peter Alsop.
Peter Alsop.

Day two of the Auckland Writers Festival opened at the Auckland Art Gallery with collector Peter Alsop's infectious enthusiasm for early New Zealand advertising images. His illustrations showed lush colour and clean lines depicting luscious landscapes and butter pats..

As lead author on two coffee-table books on the subject, Promoting Prosperity and Selling the Dream, Alsop had a clear message: early 20th century commercial art was more visible and more cultural important than is usually appreciated. Plus, he said, quoting Hamish Keith, commercial art gave us "gave us modernism in our visual environment by stealth." Colin McCahon was the first to acknowledge the inspiration he received from commercial signwriting.

New Zealand led the world in various small advertising innovations: one of the first pictorial stamp series in the world included pictures of the pink and white terraces (12 years after the Tarawera eruption); and the Department of Tourism and Health Resorts (est.

1901) was the first such government department in the world.

Next up, UK architecture critic Jonathan Glancey charmed with his Hugh Grant smile but his views had a touch of the snob about them, more Daily Telegraph reader than Guardian writer. He was sniffy about everything from mud huts to sky scrapers to Frank Gehry, and intimated that the masses have made airports "wretched" (particularly those common people wearing "baseball caps and rucksacks").

He claimed that any well-designed school, scout hut, factory or office block could "make the soul soar" but, apart from Le Corbusier's Marseilles housing block and the Lloyds Bank building in his native City of London, most of his examples of good buildings were churches and art galleries - the easiest of all briefs for architects who aim for soul-soaring.

Finally he felt the need to defend Zaha Hadid's Heydar Aliyev Centre in Bacu, Azerbijian - a building he approves of, designed for a government he doesn't. "Regimes come and go - architecture stays," he offered. Erm unless the revolution knocks it down as a symbol of the regime's tyranny. Or for a carpark.

Back at the Aotea Centre, French mathematician and poet Jacques Roubaud was delightful, a total card, in conversation with Anne French. At 81, at first he looked a little lost in his corduroy jacket, like a Leunig character, but when he spoke, it was immediately clear that his seemingly fragile exterior contained a Gallic sense of humour and playful wit. "It's impossible to teach poetry, I won't try," he declared, before dramatically reciting a poem entitled "Life" which he wrote in binary in order for it to be easy to translate: "...zero one, zero one, zero zero one...".

As a member of Oulipo - the "workshop of potential literature" - Roubaud is interested in writing with constraints, mathematical or otherwise. He once wrote a volume of poetry in which the order of the poems was decided by an imaginary game of "Go". Roubaud's opposition in the game was "the world" playing white, representing death. But the book finishes before the winner is known. "I stopped the game before death. At that time I was young and still had some hope," he deadpanned.

Another Oulipo member was Georges Perec, famous for his novel La Disparition (A Void), written without once using the letter E. The plot involves a character's disappearance. "It's a real tragedy," said Roubaud. But "when you read it orally, and we've done that a lot of times at the Oulipo, it's hilarious!"

In the evening, at the ASB Theatre, British writer/presenter/comedian and self-described show-off Sandi Toksvig warmly entertained with stories from her childhood (at age 7, she could tell her father when the wine was corked) and from a just completed road trip to Kawerau where she and her partner Debbie were made welcome at a women's boxing night. Toksvig has taken up boxing herself, in an effort to get fit, joking that beforehand that if her partner said "let's run upstairs and make love" the answer would be "make up your mind, because it's one or the other!"

"When did you know you were funny?" asked Sean Plunket. "... I find life funny! I think it's funny to 'merge like a zip'!" came the roadtrip-inspired reply.

Conversation also ranged to not-so-funny things, from the reluctance of the average soldier to kill, to the death threats Toksvig received when she became the sole self-outed lesbian in British public life in 1994. Her response to recently exposed sex scandals at the BBC was to point out that yes, unacceptable misogynistic behaviour was endemic in the 1970s and 1980s, but was not confined to the BBC, nor even to broadcasting.

And in answer to an audience question, Toksvig recommended Who Cooked the Last Supper: The Women's History of the World by Rosalind Miles. A rarity: a book not for sale at the festival bookstall.

- NZ Herald

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