Winifred Knights' The Marriage at Cana

Winifred Knights’ The Marriage at Cana

I have just returned from four weeks in New Zealand. There were two reasons for going. The first, of course, was to escape the English January weather, though this plan has not always proved to be entirely successful, as it was snowing when we returned. The second was because we very much like New Zealand – wonderful climate, amazing scenery, good food, roads almost empty, they speak English (more or less) and they drive on the left. They are also very nice people. However, this was not a literary trip. We started off in Wellington, where we hoped to visit Katherine Mansfield’s house. Unfortunately, the only day we were in Wellington was the day when it was closed, so we missed out. We did visit Te Papa, the Wellington Museum. Te Papa is short for Te Papa Tongarewa, meaning container of treasures. I must admit my favourite discovery there was English. This was The Marriage at Cana, a painting by an English artist called Winifred Knights, whom I had never heard of, though a couple of her works are in the Tate. It was bought by the Museum from the British School in Rome, as no-one else seemed to want it, because of its size. Shame on the then directors of British art galleries.

Scribes' stock of New Zealand fiction

Scribes’ stock of New Zealand fiction

When we were in New Zealand three years ago, we visited Dunedin and, in particular, Scribes bookshop. That visit led to several purchases of interesting works of New Zealand fiction, as recommended by Scribes owner Richard Tubbs, so we had no hesitation in returning. Richard was again most helpful and again we exceeded our luggage allowance with books, as I bought several works of fiction and my significant other found some interesting books on New Zealand and Dunedin history, also at Richard’s recommendation. This is one of those bookshops that are sadly disappearing in the age of online book-buying and ebooks – a well-stocked bookshop, with lots of interesting titles and a very helpful, friendly and knowledgeable owner. (I stress the word friendly because I have probably encountered more miserable people running bookshops during my life than miserable people in any other profession.) Its location next to one of New Zealand’s foremost universities probably helps. if you are in or near Dunedin, you should definitely visit it.

We did find one other excellent bookshop in Dunedin – The Hard to Find bookshop or, as their slogan has it, the Legendary Hard to find (but worth the effort) Quality Second Hand Bookshop. It was an excellent shop, as well and, frankly, not all that hard to find. Owner Warwick Jordan (scroll down) was very helpful and friendly and pointed out some interesting books. Warwick, Richard and other bookshop owners, however, sadly admitted that they did not not read much New Zealand fiction.

The new Zealand fiction shelf at Whitcoulls, Auckland

The new Zealand fiction shelf at Whitcoulls, Auckland

We did have a quick look at a few New Zealand new book shops, including Whitcoulls, flagship shop of the main New Zealand bookshop chain. People were reading some of the same books that they are reading elsewhere – Gillian Flynn, the new Sarah Waters, the new David Mitchell, the Rosie Project and Kate Mosse’s The Taxidermist’s Daughter. New New Zealand books that they are reading are Owen Marshall’s Carnival Sky, Sarah-Kate Lynch, Laurence Fearnley’s Reach, Maxine Alterio’s Lives We Leave Behind and Deborah Challinor. Challinor is a New Zealander who lives in Australia. There were a couple of other Australians who were selling quite well – M L Stedman for her The Light between the Oceans and, of course, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Oh, and, naturally, Eleanor Catton is doing quite well.

Eleanor Catton

Eleanor Catton

And talking of Eleanor Catton… While we were there, she spoke at the Jaipur Literary Festival, where she was highly critical of the New Zealand government, saying that it was dominated by these neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture. Prime Minister John Key said that she has no particular great insights into politics, though why that matters, I do not know. Talk show host Sean Plunket called her a traitor and a hua. (Nor, no did I and nor, apparently, did Plunket – see this explanation.) The Taxpayers’ Union said she had received generous support from the taxpayer. Others defended her, e.g. here and here. Not surprisingly, it is now being called Cattongate. And the whole business seems part of tall poppy syndrome. My view? Good for you, Eleanor. If politicos cannot accept a bit of criticism, they should be in a more genteel profession, such as used-car selling or telemarketing. She is perfectly entitled to criticise them, even if she has received some taxpayer funding. And hasn’t the publicity she generated for her country been worth a lot more than that the few dollars she received? The answer, by the way, for any politician reading this, is Yes.