Writers festival: The Mistress of the Quip

By Janet McAllister

Novelist Nicky Lette delivered a polished comedy routine at the Writers and Readers festival last night.
Photo / Supplied
Novelist Nicky Lette delivered a polished comedy routine at the Writers and Readers festival last night. Photo / Supplied

At the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival on Saturday night, Nicky Pellegrino introduced the exuberant, gesticulating ex-pat Australian novelist, commentator, and name-dropper Kathy Lette, dressed in a pink leopard-print mini suit, as "Mistress of the Quip".

And indeed, the flirtatious Lette mostly answered questions by delivering a polished comedy routine, with well-rehearsed one-liners flying fast, rather than spontaneous chat.

Her clever girl-talk puns and man-teasing (or rather, man-lampooning) were outrageously naughty as was her Royal gossip (she chatted about pubic hair with Camilla on the steps of Westminster Abbey).

More revelations: Lette was a 1970s Spike Milligan tour groupie; he was her "saccharine daddy" (no sex but he took her out to dinners). And she once flatly rejected a date invitation from a then-unknown actor called George Clooney: "it's obviously why he didn't get married." Obviously.

She spoke with the same disarming openness - but replaced the jokes with suitably interesting anecdotes - about her son's Aspergers ("Asparagus") Syndrome, which inspired her latest book The Boy Who Fell To Earth.

On the eve of her 77th birthday, Dame Stella Rimington - Le Carre fan and former head of MI5 - looked youthful and stylish, but not intimidatingly so. One imagines that without the emerald green jacket she could get calmly lost in a crowd in best spy fashion.

In front of a packed house, master pro Sean Plunket chaired the session with just the right amount of restrained panache. He asked relevant London and local questions, including Dame Stella's opinion of the Rainbow Warrior affair ("morally reprehensible") and the New Zealand SIS ("very competent"). The only disappointment was that spy gender politics was not discussed.

But Dame Stella lamented that MI5 now has to deal with foreign services who "do things we wouldn't do or approve of" - such as the Americans - and recounted how she went to Moscow at the end of the Cold War in a seemingly futile attempt to "lecture KGB agents about how to behave in a democracy".

On the practicalities of plotting her spy novels (which all have to be vetted by her former colleagues "to see if [they] affect national security"), she amused by mentioning that her heroine's French boyfriend "wanted her to move to Paris but I didn't see how that could work so she said no and they've bought season tickets on the Eurostar."

Witi Ihimaera and the six poets honouring Hone Tuwhare did a wonderful job of showing that his poetry - with its sound-play and its matching of mystique and the mundane - is particularly well-suited to being read aloud. Albert Wendt read "Hemi", about Tuwhare's trip to James K. Baxter's tangi: "Tongariro lumbered briefly out of the clouds to give us the old 'up you' sign". The memories personalised the free event. "Hone was always laughing," said Ian Wedde, but "the laughter was not simple". Gregory O'Brien remembered Tuwhare's advice to becoming a better poet: "read the King James Bible".

Each poet - including Jacq Carter and Anne Kennedy - read Tuwhare's, their own and each other's work; images echoed between poems, and poets. Both Rob Tuwhare - Hone's son and literary executor - and O'Brien evoked marae in their own poems: Rob talked of "the peeling gang" in the kitchen; O'Brien talked of where wharenui mattresses live as "shelves on which sleep is stored". A very special event.

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