Hanging out with Neil Gaiman, and the glories of book festivals

Auckland may be tiny on the global scale, but we punch above our weight on festivals and events. With the pandemic thankfully under control here for now, this past weekend we held what’s probably the world’s largest literary event, the Auckland Writers Festival. 

It’s always a highlight of the year for constant readers like yours truly, and I was gutted that last year’s was a COVID cancellation.

I’ve gone along to the festival for years now, and it’s astonishing the talent we get way down here – not just some of New Zealand’s best writers, but some of the world’s. I’ve seen Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Kazuo Ishiguro, Marlon James, Gloria Steinem, Peter Garrett and Jeff Tweedy, among others, been introduced to new writers like Paul Beatty or Andrew Sean Greer, and enjoyed the brilliance of homegrown authors like Elizabeth Knox, Eleanor Catton, Steve Braunias and Michelle Langstone. I’m not an obsessive stalking fanboy of my favourite writers, but it’s always rewarding to actually see them speak, and maybe even get a signature or two. 

Myself, my bald spot, Neil Gaiman.

This year’s festival felt cathartic after the chaos out there in the world, and a particular highlight was getting to spend a few hours listening to Neil Gaiman, who’s been an honorary New Zealander for much of the last year and living right here in Auckland with Amanda Palmer of late. I wasn’t going to miss a chance to say hi to Neil, whose words have meant so much to me over the years.

I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman for decades now, since those first Sandman comics blew my tender mind way back in my final year of high school. Through his prose and essays and comics, Gaiman’s been there as one of the voices in my head and a prime influence on my own hesitant scribbles and comics. I waited for 45 minutes or so to briefly meet Neil and exchange a few words about his living here and how a Californian like me ended up here. 

The Neil queue, extending well outside the convention centre.

Astonishingly, Gaiman went on to sign books for more than five hours for hundreds of fans like me. And by all accounts, was disarmingly gracious and kind to all of them. That’s pretty amazing, and I sure wouldn’t have the patience for it. “I like to think of my readers as friends,” Neil said. Hey, that might sound a wee bit corny, but I’ll take it.

We read alone; you can listen to music, watch movies or Netflix with your mates, but when you read, it’s your brain decoding the worlds, your mind putting the pictures in your head.

Maybe that’s why it’s so refreshing going to writers festivals and making a community of all these solo readers, and why getting to tell a writer face to face that you’ve loved having their words dance about in your cerebrum feels so good. For a minute, the beautiful solitary experience of reading expands into something shared.

Review: Crowded House, Auckland, March 21, and we’re all in this together

The first time I heard Crowded House was on a fuzzy mix tape from a high school girlfriend. 

She put most of their entire second album Temple Of Low Men onto this tape, and it felt strange yet familiar. Neil Finn’s voice was gorgeous yet kind of tense, and songs like “Into Temptation” and “I Feel Possessed” felt like a secret code to me in the age of MTV and Bon Jovi. Finn’s lyrics marry the universality of the Beatles with a wry Kiwi humility and eye for detail. The music felt wiser, older somehow than the typical ‘80s pop hits I usually listened to. It felt built to last.

Ever since I think of rainy afternoons, fumbling teenage heartbreak and the impossible fragility of things when I hear Crowded House. 

I barely knew what New Zealand was, and Neil Finn and company were my first introduction to the place I’d one day end up living. 

I moved to New Zealand 15 years ago, the place that hissing cassette spoke of. I’ve now seen Neil Finn a live a few times solo and with other acts, even run across him in the crowd at other shows (it’s a small country, you know), but I never did see Crowded House live. 

Last night, I entered an arena and stood 25 feet or so in front of Neil Finn and the reunited House in one of the only countries in the world such crowded stadium shows can still happen these days. Like the best of Crowded House’s music, it was broad and intimate at the same time. 

Neil and the band, now joined by his amazing sons Liam and Elroy, put on a soaring, cathartic show, doubled in strangeness by seeming so normal with much of the rest of the world still howling in the heart of the storm of COVID-19. All around me, people kept looking at the nearly full arena, almost 12,000 people unmasked and very grateful to be here. 

The lovely little earworms have turned into national anthems – “Better Be Home Soon,” “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” “Something So Strong” – and it was kind of beautiful to have them become stadium sing-alongs. Sometimes the crowd sing-alongs are pretty cringe stuff, but it’s been a weird year or so and it felt good to be part of a crowd. We’re all in this Crowded House together. 

I’ve been here 15 years ago now and so I know what Neil’s singing about in “Four Seasons In One Day” when he talks about “the sun shines in the black clouds hanging over the Domain,” because I’ve walked the grassy fields of the Domain probably a hundred times now. 

And there were the deeper cuts that I’ve listened to over and over through the years – a mesmerizing “Private Universe,” the sultry “Whispers And Moans,” a right fierce bang-up on “Knocked Out,” or a marvelous cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” dedicated to all the front-line workers here and everywhere who’ve made New Zealand a safe island in a world of worries. 

That lovestruck teenager playing that cassette tape over and over couldn’t have imagined how things would end up. The teenage girlfriend and I didn’t last long, but the music echoed forever. 

Neil Finn was singing last night to a very crowded house, yet he was also singing to me, alone in my room a million years ago, listening to gorgeous lonesome pop music and never imagining where he’d end up in this life. 

It’s literally been decades since I got that mysterious mix tape that introduced me to Crowded House, and I’ve got no idea what happened to the quirky and cool girl who gave it to me.

If I could, I’d tell her how I saw Neil Finn sing those songs last night, about the wonderful Kiwi woman I ended up marrying, how strange it was that I ended up in the place that all that haunting music came from, that I’m doing OK and that I hope she’s OK too.

I’ve been stretching my mouth / to let those big words come on out

…In a nifty little coda to the piece on Peter Gabriel I wrote late last year, I was invited on Radio New Zealand yesterday for their Afternoons Music Feature to talk all things Gabriel with host Jesse Mulligan and play a selection of his grooviest tunes. Listen to my occasionally coherent babbling! Hear some good songs!

You can listen to the full audio right here!

And here’s the playlist of the songs I selected if you’re interested:

The last thing I’ll ever write about Donald Trump

A little less than four years ago today, our family marched in downtown Auckland to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump.

Thousands of us did, including future Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. 

I took the picture of this woman at the right at the march in 2017. I wondered this morning where she is today, and I hope she’s OK and still around to see things have gotten better. That New Zealand’s Prime Minister who walked right along with us that day was re-elected in a landslide a few weeks back, and that America is about to welcome its first woman Vice-President. 

There were thousands of people that day – woman, men, children, young, old, of all races – all united in having a say over the very grim way the world seemed to be turning after Trump’s election. It felt good, damn good, to be doing something to soothe the impotent anger I felt after what happened in November 2016, even if it didn’t change the world, even if it didn’t really “matter.”

Yet today I look at the people today swarming the streets in America to celebrate the election of Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and I think well, maybe it did matter. 

Living over here since 2006 and looking back at America has been strange. I have felt like an observer in a distant outpost looking back at my home sometimes, trying to read the smoke signals.

I lived in New Zealand through the entire Obama presidency, where I felt like America was making bold steps toward a better world, and now, I’ll have been here through the entire Trump presidency, when everything I thought about the Obama years turned out to be a bit premature. I’ve written about politics in America from my NZ perspective many times, and about Trumpism. I’m still not sure I understand it at all.

I remember marching in Auckland in January 2017 – my son, then 12, was a good foot shorter than he is now. We didn’t make a sign, which I kind of regretted. It felt good to be in a crowd – a feeling that didn’t carry any of the fear and worry it does in 2020 – and to raise our voice a bit. I hoped someone would listen to us.

America listened, or at least, enough of them to make it matter. The result of this election was wayyyyyyyy too close for my liking, and a disturbing reminder that the divide in America is about way more than the current President. I want to feel anger at people who voted for him again, but I also think about Biden’s words that they aren’t the enemy. Maybe the tone really does matter more than the clickbait, the retweets and the ratings. I don’t know how things will go under President Biden, but I do know that not having the so-called leader of the free world giving constant airtime to the worst and pettiest of our feelings will be something better than before. 

At times in life, that’s all we can hope for sometimes, is the better than before.

I feel like we got it today. There’s dark days ahead and trouble to come I’m sure, but today, it’s better than before. 

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Hello, apparently there’s an election going on somewhere or something. I’ve been keeping busy with a few freelance think pieces this week for my friends over at Radio New Zealand:

First up, what’s it like to vote in not one but two national elections just a few weeks apart? And what can the US learn from New Zealand’s election last month? Here’s my take and what I desperately hope is the last piece I ever write involving a certain 45th President of the United States:

Opinion: The one word that really matters for US Election Day

But wait! There’s more! The big story everybody was talking about a day or two before the latest several big stories was the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court. Also for Radio New Zealand, I wrote about what it all means and how it’s a worrying sign of where America’s head is at these days:

Amy Coney Barrett: It’s all about the politics

Enjoy! More pop culture content after Election Day, assuming we’re all still here…

The world may be screwed, but we’ve always got the movies

Everyone’s got their social routines that have been buggered by this abominable year to date. Even though life is a lot more normal now here in New Zealand than it is in other places, it’s still a bit shaky. 

But at least, we’ve still got the movies, even if it isn’t quite the same. I know it’s a stupid thing to focus on in a world with so much pain and loss and stress going on right now, but I have to admit I think a fair bit about how in a brighter alternate timeline, I’d have seen the new Black Widow, James Bond and Wonder Woman movies by now, not to mention a handful of other wonders new and old. 

But my very cool local retro cinema finally reopened this week, with what turned out to be a sold-out showing of 1993’s True Romance. Driving up to the theatre last night, I saw crowds of people outside and had trouble finding a parking space. I was a bit confused by all the bustle. For a 27-year-old movie starring Christian Slater! (And written by Quentin Tarantino, I might add.) People were clearly starved for the magic of the movies. It was great to be back, and appreciate the strange communion of the cinema, which streaming just can’t quite recreate. 

It still feels a bit decadent, a bit strange, to be able to be crowded in a sold-out theatre with hundreds of others, nobody wearing a mask, in the age of COVID. But we’ve fought a hard battle here to get to this place of near-containment, and that does make the little victories like hanging out at the movies with a mate, a soda and a popcorn taste that much sweeter. 

The New Zealand International Film Festival is mostly online this year, which is understandable, but also a bummer – some of my best theatre memories in recent years have revolved around the bustling, diverse wonders of the festival, where you can pivot from a gory crowd-pleaser to a touching Tongan documentary with ease. New Zealand’s tentative reopening meant the festival had to stick to mostly online showings this year, which sadly isn’t quite the same. Fortunately, my local retro cinema is also showing a few of the movies in person in limited viewings this season, which I won’t pass up.

New movies are thin on the ground in 2020 and it’s kind of looking like it might stay that way all year long – this year’s summer movie season, a gaudy showcase of spandex, explosions and spaceships for as long as I can remember, simply does not exist. But hey, True Romance was pretty fun to see again for the first time in ages. And everything old is new again. 

Lights, camera, action. A crowd of strangers and a flickering screen. It may not be 100% normal life, but I’ll take what I can get. 

Halfway through the longest year ever

…I keep meaning to write something here but life gets in the way. The calendar is nearly halfway through 2020, or approximately 5,000 years since the world felt normal.

I wrote a thing for Radio New Zealand just two weeks back about what a strange feeling it is being an American living in New Zealand right now.

If anything, I’d go back right now and add about 100 exclamation points and a couple of choice swears to it.

It’s terrifying to watch the country I love and where my family and so many of my friends live go through this, and to know it didn’t have to be this bad.

New Zealand is coming through this better than many places, but we’re having our own problems as kiwis abroad return home and how we deal with it in a kind and intelligent manner. We aren’t able to just disconnect ourselves from the rest of the world, and as it suffers, we suffer too.

People simply aren’t used to collective efforts and the notion that a crisis can last a bit longer than it takes to binge-watch a Netflix series. We aren’t even through a first wave yet, let alone what might happen next.

I wish I could fast-forward through to around December and tell everyone that things work out OK, or that it won’t be as bad as my anxiety and fears keep whispering in my ear right now.

But I can’t.

Standing on a beach, staring at the sea in Level 3

I stood on a beach today for the first time in close to six weeks, and looked at the sea. 

There’s at least 100 beaches within an hour’s drive of our house (we do live on a narrow isthmus on a small island at the bottom of the world, after all), but I couldn’t go to them. New Zealand’s strict national lockdown ended at midnight last night, and for the first time in what feels like an age, we could do a little bit more today than we did yesterday.

We’re not fully out. Level 3, as they call it here, is still pretty stern. Fast food and takeaway restaurants are open, many people are finally getting to work again and we can drive a little further, but most of society is still hunkered down for a few more weeks, likely. New Zealand and our Prime Minister’s firm, authoritative response to the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have worked well.

What did I do during the great lockdown of 2020? I worked, a fair bit more than normal, picking up extra shifts because what else was there to do. I painted walls. I fussed about the house organising boxes of old letters and heaving book shelves and music magazines I’d inexplicably kept since 2013. Every day for the duration of Level 4 I posted a comic book cover of a character in prison (or lockdown) on my Instagram account. It turns out that’s a pretty fertile genre. My son played video games with his friends online, built cool models and ventured into online schooling. My wife catalogued trees and trapped rats. We all went for a lot of walks around our hilly neighbourhood.

And I worried, of course, in vague and uncertain ways. I recognise how immensely lucky that I am in many ways in this crisis, but still like everyone else I wonder what’s next. I seethe at the inept politics back home and the sprawling misinformation, ignorance and hate that’s taken over the internet. I saw friends back in the US, dealing first hand with the death of a neighbour or a relative or a patient and silently cursed all those who’d downplay this as some passing conspiracy fad. 

There’s been a surplus of thinkpieces and essays out there imagining a better world to come, full of idealistic notions that I wish I could fully see coming true.

In the end I have to ignore everyone else’s freaking out and rage and tension and come back to what matters the most, the people I live with inside these overly familiar walls, and controlling the antic voices in my own head. 

I stood on a beach today and looked at the sea. It’s still pretty good, eh? 

He had my name, and he died in a pandemic

Nicholas Dirga died in a pandemic.

This was my great-grandfather, who I share a name with, and he died 101 years ago at the age of 38. He was one of an estimated 50 million people who died then in the great “Spanish flu” pandemic.

I think about my great-grandfather, gone more than 50 years before I was born, a lot these strange days. He and his family had emigrated from what used to be Austria-Hungary (now somewhere in Slovakia). I’ve got just two pictures of him, one from his wedding day in 1901, another taken in 1911 of him with his young family. My grandfather, yet another Nicholas Dirga, just a baby, is in that image. 

You stare at a photo long enough you can project a lot of things. My great-grandfather looks a fair bit like a sterner version of my own father, with the distinctive “Dirga chin” (a cavernous dimple much reduced by my generation) and an impressively cool moustache. I don’t know a lot about him, but we shared a name and a pile of genes. And he died way too young of a disease that swept the world. 

So, my whole country entered a month-long lockdown last night, where for four weeks, almost everyone in the country of more than 4 million people has to shelter in place. I’m counting my blessings. I already work from home, my family is safe, and I’m surrounded by books to read.

I have to admit I’ve been thinking a lot about the relative with my name who died in a similar pandemic a century ago. With my recent health troubles, I’m somewhat at a higher risk category than some, so it’s even more important that I do what our Prime Minister has said – “Stay home, be kind.” 

A lot of families are going to have stories that end cruelly, sooner than they should, like the Nicholas Dirga who died 101 years ago did. His wife lived to be 96 – she died the year after I was born!

There’s a lot of flailing and some truly appalling behaviour by some governments going on, but there’s also moments of grace and at the moment, I’m very, very happy to be in New Zealand, even if much of my family is still on the other side of this troubled world. 

It’s a world Nicholas Dirga wouldn’t recognise, although he might recognise the story of a disease spreading, inexorably, around the world. And I figure by staying shut in for the next four weeks or so, I’m at least giving myself a fighting chance of outlasting this one. 

Pandemonium: My top 10 fictional apocalypses

It’s weird times. My country has closed its borders to the world, which sounds like the opening sentence to a hundred dystopian fiction novels and movies. It doesn’t quite feel real.

New Zealand has been luckier, so far, than many other nations during this global pandemic. But we’re all still connected, and all still freaked out a bit. We’ve seen the end of the world coming many times in stories, and maybe that’s why this particular crisis seems so terrifying and uncertain. We’ve imagined how it could go for years. 

In the spirit of howling defiantly into the abyss, here’s my top 10 apocalypses of all time – an apocalypse defined as one where most of the population bites the dust. We’re not there in real life, yet, cross fingers, and hopefully we never will be.

10. Atomic Knights, DC Comics

I always dug this old 1960s sci-fi serial comic from the pages of Strange Adventures, which images a post-World War III world (the war of 1986!) where a group of plucky survivors don old medieval suits of armour that turn out to be ray-gun proof and fight evil warlords and also there are giant mutant Dalmatians and … OK, it’s pretty silly, but good fun, and this may be the most cheery, clean-cut apocalypse of all time, in the G-rated way of Silver Age comics.  Plausibility factor – Could this actually happen? Medium. While we may get all wiped out in a nuclear war, it probably wouldn’t be quite as tidy as this comic imagines. Trigger warning – Would I want to revisit this if self-isolating during the current unpleasantness? I’m always up for goofy sci-fi comics. 

9. The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver

Of everything on this list, this is probably the most “realistic” work, a fine epic novel from 2016 starting with the economic collapse of America in 2029 and following what happens to one family as everything goes to shit.  Plausibility factor – High. This is one of those books that may seem eerily prescient.  Trigger warning – High. The Mandibles is great, but all too plausible. 

8. Dawn Of The Dead (1979 and 2004 versions)

Zombies run amok and the only sanctuary is a shopping mall. While George Romero’s original is a stone-cold classic of the zombie genre, Zack Snyder’s millennial remake is surprisingly good too, amping up the action and yet still keeping the essential unease of the premise. Plausibility factor – Low. We’re still not at zombie stage of this outbreak. Trigger warning – Medium. Both Dawns offer up a lot of scary scenarios for society breaking down. 

7. Battlestar Galactica

I grew up not knowing this was regarded as a Star Wars ripoff, but at its core, both the underrated cheese of the original and the stoic doomsday of the reboot are about humanity carrying on after it’s been reduced to mere shreds of itself. Plus, Cylons! Plausibility factor – Low. Remember when we all worried about the robots killing us? Trigger warning – Medium. The reboot gets pretty damn dark sometimes, but the original is swashbucklingly easygoing for the most part. 

6. Marvel Zombies

A series of Marvel comics starting in 2005 imagined what might happen if superheroes turned into brainless zombies and ate the world. Often hilarious, very gory and, until the premise started getting wrung out by endless sequels, one of the more creative “what ifs” of the overused superhero dystopia genre. Plausibility factor – Low. First, we’d have to have superheroes, then zombies. Trigger warning – Low. A good bloody tonic for the staying-at-home blues. 

5. 1984 by George Orwell

One of my all-time favourite novels, barely fitting into the “apocalypse” scenario, but a lot of the action in Orwell’s imagined “Big Brother” world is predicated upon endless wars with unrevealed death tolls and a world laid low by chaos. Its message of media control and manipulation only seems more urgent every day. Plausibility factor – High! Trigger warning – Medium to high. While pessimistic at its core, to me 1984 is still a story about the power of hope. 

4. “The Deathbird” by Harlan Ellison 

This 1974 short story from Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories collection has always kind of got me right in the feels. It’s kind of a rewritten take on the Bible, where Satan is actually the good guy, and it’s about finding the strength to end everything. It’s also very emotionally vulnerable, not always a quality associated with the bigger-than-life Ellison, and beautiful in its shattered way. It’s a quiet storm about the very end of all things. Plausibility factor – Low. Of all the things I have to worry about, the Deathbird is low on the list. Trigger warning – Medium to high, depending on how you feel about sad stories about dying pets. 

3. The Stand by Stephen King

The plague novel to end all plague novels, and one of King’s finest epics. A disease sweeps across the world, leaving only a handful of people to face a second kind of Armageddon against a very real devil. As the critics say, “impossible to put down,” even if it’s approximately 3000 pages long. Plausibility factor – Medium. We’re not likely to see Randall Flagg wandering Las Vegas, but as always with King, he’s got a lot of tiny details that ground his fanciful fiction. Trigger warning – Medium. The famous scenes of characters trying to make their way out of a body-filled Manhattan might be a bit harrowing now. 

2. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson 

They’ve tried to make this into a movie several times, but nothing touches Matheson’s original novel, about the last human on earth in a world of vampires. Claustrophobic, creepy and stark, it’s a gem in apocalypse literature.  Plausibility factor – Medium. Matheson ably captures the siege mentality of self-isolation, but so far vampires aren’t really a threat. Trigger warning – Medium. Matheson eerily captures the feeling of being the last man on earth. 

1. Planet of the Apes/Beneath The Planet of the Apes

Damn dirty apes, Charlton Heston in a loincloth, Roddy McDowell and quite possibly the bleakest single ending to a big-budget franchise in history (the nuclear annihilation of Beneath) – what’s not to love? Sure, most people are dead, enslaved or hideous mutants living underground, but still, for all my end-of-the-world needs, I’ll always go ape first. Plausibility factor – Low. Even when the great more recent Apes reboot tried to make it more plausible, we’re still a while from Caesar swinging in the trees. Trigger warning – Low, unless you’ve recently visited the Statue of Liberty.