ALEXANDER BISLEY looks back on Auckland’s superlative literary event.

THE Auckland Writers and Readers Festival is, three-in-a-row, a terrific literary festival. It raises an exciting challenge for Wellington’s festival. Richard Holloway was my unexpected delight for 2009. The former Bishop of Edinburgh and current chair of the Scottish Arts Council (“a sort of Bishop to the Arts”) is the ideal intellectual: profoundly humanistic and soulful, a formidable presence with a swashbuckling Scottish wit. In discussion with Glynn Cardy, the author of Between the Monster and the Saint and Looking in the Distance: the Human Search for Meaning scintillated. He criticised the Anglicans, his former church, for their attitude towards homosexuality. “These endless, tedious arguments about gay sexuality.” He said it was perverse to tell young people that their love, a beautiful thing, was wrong. He recalled how Bobby Kennedy, a too often callous/opportunistic politician, became spiritual. “That summer [before the assassination] soul entered Kennedy.” On bigoted African bishops? “It’s history’s revenge.” Holloway eloquently spoke of imaginative compassion: “Identify with the humanity of the other.”

Holloway joined five other engaging minds for The Next 100 Years, making the case for a more restrained hedonism. “Life is its own meaning; what we’re here for.” Texan George Friedman said China’s strength is overrated given their economy centres on churning out cheap crap. “One out of seven containers leaving China goes to the Republic of Wal-Mart.” Cosmologist Marcus Chown put in a word for optimism, arguing past, seemingly unsolvable situations like Northern Island and South Africa have made remarkable progress. “The India-Pakistan problem has been solved because there is a bigger problem,” Mohammed Hanif, the author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes and BBC Special Correspondent, discussed Pakistan’s civil war.

In his lively individual session the winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Prize Best First Book, which plumbed some terrible situations employing humour, expanded on the Islamist tragedy in places like Swat Valley. He made a spirited defence of properly managed, brilliant public broadcasting versus Murdochism. “These Murdoch clones who talk about media freedom, but can’t be bothered to pay their people properly, and interfere with their journalists, making middle of the night calls.”

Lloyd Mr Pip Jones with Finlay McDonald was a very genial match-up. As McDonald said in his introduction, despite all his varied success: “Amazingly, none of this has gone to his head.” The grounded Wellingtonian read a wonderful piece from an Irish event with Seamus Heaney and Anne Enright. He movingly evoked walking 90 Mile Beach, the Maori spiritual path, tourists and his mother’s death.

She introduced him to books at an early age and he spent many enriching hours in Lower Hutt public library, before importing the habit to his job unloading cargo at Wellington Airport. “Nothing prepares you for the sheer tedium of workaday life,” books provided solace though. Jones got in a marvellous diss at technocrats who say the future exclusively belongs to e-books: “‘We can make it look like a book.’ What!”

New Yorker Night was another immensely stimulating and enjoyable session. Rhonda Sherman, director of the New Yorker Festival, was joined on stage by charismatic writers Rick Hertzberg(politics), Judith Thurman (biography) and James Surowiecki (economics). “We don’t do reader surveys.” Rather, they let great writers write and talk. (The Lumière Reader will publish an interview feature with Hertzberg soon.) A further elegant highlight was Tash Aw. The Malaysian author of the Indonesian-set Map of the Invisible World demolished Somerset Maugham, and potently argued for emotional truth over identity politics. “It’s about what goes on inside you.”

See also:
» A Chat with Mohammed Hanif