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The ‘Going West’ Literary Festivals

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It was a casual remark from a customer who, as a schoolgirl, had travelled to school in the city from deepest west Auckland by train for many years. ‘It is amazing how accurate Maurice Gee’s account of the trip into the city by train was: It was this passage from his novel Going West that was the inspiration for the now-legendary literary festival named from Gee’s story, set in the town of Loomis (Henderson).

It was my thought to get a group of friends together to recreate that journey while reading from the book and drinking lots of good wine and looking at the back of people’s houses.

It was two years later that we — myself and my partner, Naomi — with the support of Professor Peter Simpson, mayor Bob Harvey, and the Waitakere City Council, found ourselves in the rather rundown industrial space on the Corban’s winery in Henderson with a literary festival to nurture.

In that first year, 1996, ‘Going West: the Word Around Us’ was a railcar trip to Helensville and back and a symposium with a dozen writers next day. Most memorable in that first programme was the sight of Dick Scott and Assid Corban at opposite ends of a large room arguing the quality of the early wines produced by Corbans. The ambience somewhat diluted by the lack of door and the chilling drafts this allowed.

The year 1997 saw a major jump in presentation. We moved to the Titirangi Memorial Hall, carpet on the floor and padded seats. We took our catering team and audio team with us — these people have stayed with us all through the following events. ‘Getting a Word In’ was our event for 1997. We had gained confidence with the success of the first festival and looked to expand with a two-day seminar in Titirangi, a free family story day in Henderson and ‘Up the Line’ with a real train this time. Notable readings from Sia Figiel, Ken Hulme and Allen Curnow lifted our profile and added weight to the event. The train trip had Maurice Gee at Henderson reading from Going West (the novel).

By 1998, we had a successful format to work to and extended our range of writers to all New Zealand. ‘The Nation’s Narratives’ featured Dame Anne Salmond, Ian Wedde, Dave Dobbyn, Witi Ihimaera, with Jamie Belich and Tainui Stephens on the making of The New Zealand Wars. ‘Steaming Ahead’ finally got us the steam engine that was so necessary to make the train trip a real experience and Lynda Chanwai Earle certainly provided the performance edge.

‘Fit to Print’ was our title for the 1999 festival. We explored the life and times of Denis Glover with his biographer, Gordon Ogilvie, helped along by Michael King, Marilyn Duckworth and Brian Easton, with some great sound archives of Glover reading. Allen Curnow spoke from the floor, Dylan Horrocks’ very moving session on the modern graphic novel, and the rare presences of Hone Tuwhare and Cilia McQueen made it a memorable event, as did a slightly chaotic performance by Red Mole at Lopdell House Theatre. The train, ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, carried Dave Dobbyn who sang to the group at lunch.

The year 2000 was celebrated by further extending the festival into the community with a special one-day programme for secondary school students and enhanced family storyfest at Kelston. Dame Fiona Kidman and our first trans-Tasman writer, Roger McDonald, read from Mr Darwin’s Shooter, with Jonathan Besser playing piano. Margaret Mahy, Alistair Campbell and Michael King rounded out a very successful weekend. The following Sunday saw us gathering again at Platform #4 for ‘the occidental tourist’ to Helensville. Once again we were privileged to hear Maurice Gee reading at the Chapel in Glen Eden and Ian Mune joined with Lynn Lorkin and Hershal for an entertaining luncheon at Waimauku.

‘Never Lost for Words’ was our theme for 2001. Michael King spoke to the audience on this theme as keynote speaker, following the award-winning poet Fleur Adcock who later talked about life with Barry Crump. Once again we were privileged to have Allen Curnow reading from his recent work, Roger Horrocks spoke about Len Lye, and Amelia Batistich and Patricia Grace joined generations to read from their respective work. The Oblivion Express celebrated poetry with Sam Hunt at the luncheon break. Helensville was set laughing by Glenn Colquhoun and Cherie Barford reading in tandem to a delighted and mildly wine-affected audience on the platform.

By 2002 we had a very successful event that was acknowledged as a major feature in the New Zealand literary festival circuit. ‘Tracking the Vernacular’ set out to explore our language, with Marilyn Waring giving a formal view and Max Cryer talking to the Topp Twins about their special way of talking! John Bates presented Robin Morrison’s images and Dame Joan Metge shared her lifetime of wisdom with us. Montana Award winners Lloyd Jones and Elizabeth Knox talked about their recent writing and Joanna Woods shared her experiences researching Katherine Mansfield’s Russian connections while living in Moscow. ‘A Full Head of Steam’ saw 200 people on the steam train to Helensville and return. A moving reading of Shadbolt’s Dove on the Waters in New Lynn led to a nostalgic gig at luncheon with Wayne Mason, composer of the song ‘Nature’

For 2003 we had expanded the festival to nine activities in the city with more programmes for students, allied art exhibitions and the now highly regarded second-hand book market. Wild New Zealand’ was the theme and Geoff Park spoke to this subject as keynote speaker. Geoff Chapple followed this theme with an illuminating talk on his walking track through New Zealand, A.RD. Fairburn was celebrated with his biographer Denys Trussell and two of Fairburn’s daughters, and Mac Jackson with an inspired reading of A.R.D!s poetry. The weekend finished with James McNeish in conversation with David Baragwanath about the recently published account of the Rhodes Scholars of the mid-thirties. Well Expressed’ took 200 people on the train to Helensville once again, with a fine performance from the West Auckland group Waves’, reformed after 30 years. Helen Medlyn and Glenn Colquhoun were brilliant in their session at the Chapel of the Faith in the Oaks at Glen Eden.

The ninth Going West was coloured by the recent deaths of Michael King and Janet Frame. Christine Cole Catley and Tainui Stephens gave moving accounts of their wonderful contribution to our literary life. Guest Michael Leunig from Australia helped to swell audiences at a memorable event.

Our tenth anniversary festival was notable for a powerful and learned keynote address from Nigel Cox, returning to New Zealand after a number of years working in Berlin. The Saturday saw a tribute dinner to Hone Tuwhare and live performances from Graham Brazier, Hinemoana Baker and Te Kupu and readings by Don Selwyn. This year also featured the last Going West Train Trip where Maurice Gee joined with Alistair and Meg Campbell to read to the travellers.

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