The second Blackball Readers and Writers Festival, run by the Bathhouse Co-op, was very successful. People are happy and thinking, was Nicky Hager’s comment at the final dinner. It’s a small event, around 70 people all up and held in the library of the local school. There’s a single program so everyone attends everything – so no choices and no rushing from place to place. The theme was ‘activists, renegades and recluses’. People like the small scale and the mingling and the conversations that take place over kai. European activists have the concept of radical hospitality − the change that can take place around the dinner table − and something of that nature occured.
On the first day we ‘resurrect’ a West Coast writer, someone who wrote while living here for a period at least. This year it was the turn of poet, Peter Hooper, who worked by day as a teacher and who lived a lonely life – was most probably gay – but a man who had a big influence on students with a literary bent. He was also an early environmentalist. Cold Hub press have gathered his poetry for the first time and it is an evocative read.
Becky Manawatu proved a humble yet committed person, seemingly young, yet she has teenage children, and after a huge debut with Auē, is joining the whanau of established Maori writers.
And then another honouring occurred as Elspeth Sandys spoke of her uncle, Rewi Alley, the subject of her book, A Communist in the Family. As she spoke we became fully aware of Rewi as a significant figure in 20th century history – a leading activist in the Chinese revolution and a tireless worker for social justice, held in high honour in China, yet here? − an information panel off the main road in Springfield where he was born. Our communist phobia is ridiculous.
Nicky Hager is another activist who has impacted significantly as a writer. I had the task of interviewing him, which required a reading of his seven books. In doing so I was struck by the depth of his study of the NZ role in the US Afghanistan adventure, a book called Other People’s Wars. It is the least read of his books but perhaps the most important as he details the stupidity and the consequences of a country like Aotearoa following the Americans in their imperial interventions, of spying on their behalf, and of equipping our military, at great expense, so that we can join their deadly games. And this happens partly because of the top brass in the defence forces and in MFAT leading the politicians by the nose because they like the kudos of mixing with the big boys. As he points out, this continues a tradition of ‘tagging along’, from the Boer War onwards and is sold to the public through the sentimental ANZAC tradition. Our role should be very different.
There were other contributions, from the more traditional story teller, Sandra Arnold to the growing work from within the environmental and climate emergency movement by writers like Tim Jones and Kathleen Gallagher, where we begin to imagine life within this framework.
And as I said, people enjoyed the event as an encounter not based on marketing and commodity (there was zero dollars spent on advertising), but based on community tradition.