Steve Braunias attends the inaugural Central Hawkes Bay writers festival.

Bravo and huzzah to the inaugural Central Hawkes Bay literary festival, which I attended at the weekend and can immediately judge a great success. It was held in an assortment of quite strange and tremendously charming venues in that quite strange and tremendously charming neck of the New Zealand woods – no one ever talks about Central Hawkes Bay. Everyone talks about New Zealand’s two other Centrals: the Central Plateau, with Mt Ruapehu sticking out of the Rangipo desert, and Central Otago, with its Grahame Sydney paintings of folded hills and railway huts brought to life. But Central Hawkes Bay doesn’t exist in the national imagination. It has vineyards, but everywhere has vineyards; Waiheke bloody Island has vineyards. It’s not especially rustic. It’s not what you would call lush. It’s seemingly not very Māori. But actually it staged a very, very distinctive literary festival.

Certainly the Central Hawkes Bay literary festival is distinctive from the Hawkes Bay literary festival, which is held in Napier and also in nearby Havelock North, that chi-chi town of the nouveau riche – better nouveau than never, as Groucho Marx once observed, but it’s a bit of a nerveless kind of joint. I was at a literary festival there a few years ago and got stuck with a bunch of insufferable wine makers. They were talking about how they all owned nice houses designed by architect Ian Athfield. The name of Alan Duff came up – the great author of Once Were Warriors was living there at the time – and someone said: “Duffy’s got an Ath.” Duffy’s got an Ath. God almighty. I thought: let me out.


That fabulous independent bookstore, Wardinis, is based in both Napier and Havelock. It gives Hawkes Bay a literary pedigree. Central Hawkes Bay has a Paper Plus in Waipukarau. It also has readers and writers scattered hither and yon in that stunning, empty, drought-stricken landscape of flat pastures and wide rivers; and every single event at its inaugural literary festival was sold-out. Full credit to the co-ordinating panel, led by Anna Locker-Lampson. It is hard enough to bring something like this to life, and get on board sponsors such as Hawkes Ridge, Lime Rock, and Junction Wines. In 2020, there was the added challenge of the plague. Many festivals decided to cancel. Central waited it out, and their patience was rewarded.   

Authors came from Auckland, the Hokianga, Wellington, other places. Paul Little and Wendyl Nissen were there. Charity Norman was there. Tayi Tibble was there. I was there, in a session chaired by my great drinking mate Bill Ralston, who now lives in Hawkes Bay coastal splendour at Te Awanga. Our session was called Chewing The Cud. In days of old it would have been called Sinking The Piss – we were particular habitués of SPQR on Ponsonby Rd and HQ on Beaumont St. We had a glass or two before our session and a glass or two during our session and a glass or two after our session. In sum total we drank only as much as we used to in the first hour or so of a lunch that typically began about midday and ended towards midnight, the next day.

The venue itself was sobering. The organising committee came up with the excellent idea of staging events in grand old homes in Central Hawkes Bay. Charity Norman’s session was held at the amazing Ashcott Homestead, which has a billiard room and a ballroom, and is set on 10 acres; my event was held at the jaw-dropping Langton House, built in 1905, up the end of a long tree-lined drive in the middle of Central nowhere. God it was nice. The walls and doors were made of deep, dark rimu. The lady of the house was called Pixie. There were three adorable children. They gave me a guided tour of their playroom. Guests arrived, and were given wine and nibbles; there was a roaring fireplace, and ancient oil paintings of land owners; outside, in the cool night air, there was a sky stuffed with stars, and a babbling brook; inside, I got chatting to a crime novelist; everyone was very nice, and the presence of beautiful Tayi Tibble in the front row may well have marked the first time a Māori had entered the house in 100 years, who knows.

Every home should have a chandelier: Langton House, on State Highway 2, Pukehou.

I sat with Bill next to a piano in a large front room. The guests sat in chairs on the carpet. The whole thing felt like a 19th century entertainment. How strange, and how charming; the ambient IQ of the guests was high, everyone was in cheerful spirits, and as a veteran of so many literary festivals up and down the country (Kapiti Island, Waiheke bloody Island, you name it; I think the only two I haven’t attended are in Blackball, and Tongariro, and I wish they’d do something about that, please) I can report that it was one of the most enjoyable sessions I’ve ever appeared in.

The next day I attended a poetry session chaired by Morrin Rout, and featuring Marty Smith and Tayi Tibble, in the TatterTales artisan store in Waipawa. Waipawa is a sweet little town, almost chi-chi; it’s got a fantastic second-hand record shop (Passionate About Vinyl, where I got a Ray Columbus LP for $15) and a fantastic clock shop (The Clock Shop, where I got a wind-up alarm clock for $20). TatterTales was fantastic, too, and I got a teatowel for $20. It was an inspired venue. The whole place was full of beautiful things, lovely textures, artistic statements; and the session was superb.

Marty read from her book Horse with Hat, Tayi read from her book Poūkahangatus. Both spoke fluently about their work, and about literature and that. Morrin Rout, who used to run the Christchurch literary festival, was an expert chair – she directed traffic, kept quiet, set the tone for an intelligent and sometimes moving conversation. I don’t know if this is true but it felt like there was more applause for that session than my event the previous night. Well, they deserved it. When an event at a literary festival goes well, it brings you closer to the mind of a writer, shows you the spells they make, the grace of a good line; huzzah and bravo to the inaugural Central Hawkes Bay writers festival, for creating something special.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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